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How to Stay Awake on Slippery, Wintry Roads

The winter months can pose unique and sometimes dangerous challenges for drivers. Shorter days and more hours of darkness may cause people to feel sleepy earlier in the day, and too often, behind the wheel. Also, some medications taken for the common winter flu can also cause daytime sleepiness, according to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF).

“You don't want to feel sleepy behind the wheel at any time, but in winter, when you can have the addition of messy weather that causes slippery roads, not being fully alert can be particularly dangerous,” notes Richard L. Gelula, NSF's executive director.

Sunlight or other bright light helps adjust our body clocks or circadian rhythms and keeps us awake. Darkness, which occurs earlier in the evening during winter months, has the opposite effect. Darkness results in the release of melatonin, which may act in promoting sleepiness.

One winter problem affecting as many as six of every 100 people in the United States is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), an extreme form of the “winter blues.” SAD can make a normally alert person overly tired, which researchers believe may be caused by the body's reaction to a lack of sunlight and melatonin production during the winter months.

The flu season may cause many Americans to turn to over-the-counter medications to help them cope with their symptoms — but these drugs can have side effects. Certain cold and allergy medicines have active ingredients that can cause sleeplessness at night and sleepiness during the day. These include:

  • brompheniramine, the ingredient in Dimetane® and Comtrex® Maximum Strength Acute Head and Cold;

  • diphenhydramine, found in Contac® Day/Night and Benadryl® Allergy;

  • triprolidine, the active ingredient in Actifed® and Sudafed® Sinus Nighttime;

  • pseudephedrine, a nasal decongestant found in cold remedies and diet aids may also cause insomnia.

These active ingredients are also found in many products sold under store brands. It is important to read the label and know the possible side effects of any medications you take. If any cause drowsiness, and you must drive, talk to your pharmacist or doctor. Sometimes the timing of when you take the medication can solve the problem.

While many of America's sleep deprived adults try to catch up on their sleep on weekends, a recent NSF poll also shows that one quarter of the adults in this country – 47 million people – don't even get the minimum amount of sleep they say they need to be fully alert the next day.

About one-half of America's adult drivers – an estimated 100 million – say they have driven drowsy, according to an NSF poll. Two in 10 – about 32 million people – say they have actually fallen asleep at the wheel. Those most at risk are young adults, 18-29; 71 percent say they have driven while drowsy.

Being sleepy behind the wheel can have the same affects as being drunk. “Research shows that being awake for more than 18 hours produces an impairment equal to being legally drunk,” says NSF's Gelula. “When days are stretched by long work hours and social gatherings, waking at 6 a.m. and going to sleep at Midnight, you're awake for 18 hours. It's a schedule too many people follow.”

If you are driving and start to yawn excessively, have trouble keeping your head up, or have difficulty focusing or keeping your eyes open, you may be at risk for “micro-sleeps” or falling asleep behind the wheel. It's important to recognize these signs and find a safe place to stop as soon as possible and have a companion take over. A 15-20 minute nap can be helpful. Caffeine from coffee or energy drinks can promote short-term alertness, but it takes about 30 minutes for caffeine to enter the bloodstream; take your nap while waiting for the caffeine to kick in.

The National Sleep Foundation is an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to improving public health and safety by achieving understanding of sleep and sleep disorders, and by supporting education, sleep-related research, and advocacy. NSF is based in Washington, DC.

Additional information about sleep and sleep disorders can be found at the National Sleep Foundation's main Website.