Migraine is a neurological disease that causes a severe headache and other symptoms, like nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to lights, sounds, and smells.
The head pain associated with migraine can be debilitating. It can prevent people from going to work or school and participating in their usual routine.
In an ideal world, you would not get behind the wheel of a car and drive during a migraine episode. The physical limitations and impaired thinking ability can make driving unsafe.
The reality, though, is that many people with migraine find themselves needing to get home from work, pick up a child after school, or go to the doctor’s office.
So, just how unsafe is driving with a migraine, and are there any ways to reduce the risks? Here’s what the science says about driving with migraine.
What is migraine?
While more than 10%Trusted Source of people worldwide experience migraine, it’s often misunderstood as just a “bad headache.” Migraine can be infrequent or chronic, occurring multiple timesTrusted Source per week or month. Episodes can last for hours or days.
During a migraine episode, many people will have pulsing, throbbing pain on one or both sides of their head that gets worse with movement. This often forces them to retreat from their daily lives until the pain passes.
Is it safe to drive if you have a migraine episode?
Although it can be hard to avoid driving during a migraine episode, especially if your migraine is chronic and you have frequent episodes, driving is not considered a safe activity.
ResearchTrusted Source into the effects of migraine on driving is sparse, but there are two potential issues: the neurological symptoms that occur during an episode and the side effects of any medications you may be taking to prevent or treat episodes.
When prescribing your migraine medication, your doctor or pharmacist will tell you whether any of the medications will limit you from driving.
Common medications like sumatriptan can make you dizzy or sleepy. Anti-nausea medications can make you drowsy, too.
Doctors usually recommend that you avoid driving or operating heavy machinery after taking these types of medications. In fact, one newer medication, lasmiditan, has a specific warning that you cannot drive or operate heavy machinery for at least 8 hours after taking it.
When it comes to assessing your own symptoms against your ability to drive, it can get tricky. You might feel confident in your ability to safely travel.
But the American Migraine Foundation advises people with migraine to avoid driving during any stage of a migraine episode since symptoms can get suddenly worse.
How does migraine affect your ability to drive?
There are several migraine symptoms that can make driving an unsafe activity. Here are some of the most common ones, along with how they interfere with driving.
Nausea and vomiting
Nausea is hard enough to deal with while driving. It’s nearly impossible to keep your eyes on the road while you’re actively vomiting.
Dizziness is a common symptom of migraine, and one that can get worse with frequent head movements.
This type of vestibular disturbance can make driving difficult. According to a 2020 research reviewTrusted Source, many people with vestibular disorders say their symptoms limit their ability to drive.
If a migraine episode occurs with aura, you might experience visual disturbances, like:
seeing spots or stars
temporary partial loss of vision
These disturbances can affect your ability to assess your surroundings while driving.
Migraine episodes often involve a number of cognitive impairments, like:
slowed or confused speech
This brain fog can make it hard to navigate safely from one place to another while behind the wheel.
Sensitivity to light and sound
The cabin of a car presents increased sensitivity to light and sound. This can make it difficult to keep your eyes open, fixed on the road, and focused on your environment.
Sleepiness and traffic collisions go hand in hand. Since migraine can cause extreme fatigue and drowsiness, it may be physically impossible to stay alert and awake enough while driving to keep yourself and others safe.
This is less common, but there is a type of migraine that causes an aura involving weakness on one side of the body: hemiplegic migraine. Its symptoms often feel similar to a stroke.
If you can’t control your physical movements at any stage of a migraine episode, you can’t safely drive a vehicle.
Is it legal to drive with a migraine episode?
While it’s not the safest choice to drive during a migraine episode, it is legal to do so in all 50 U.S. states.
Unlike other neurological conditions (like epilepsy, narcolepsy, and seizure disorders), a migraine diagnosis doesn’t come with any extra steps or limitations, such as:
physician reporting requirements
need for a physical exam or exemption from a doctor to obtain a driver’s license
However, state laws do vary about which medications and medical conditions require licensing restrictions — and just because something is legal doesn’t mean it’s always safe.
Make sure to check with your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) if you have questions. You can also ask your doctor whether they have concerns about your ability to drive while taking any prescribed medications.