OTC Drugs and Diving – Here’s What You Should Know


In today’s world, over-the-counter (OTC) medications are considered an everyday norm. Most of us all have a variety of “harmless” medications in our medicine cabinet — things like aspirin, decongestants, and antacids. While this works great for day-to-day life, under the water, even the most seemingly innocent of medicines can have profound negative side effects.

Before You Pop that Pill and Don Your Dive Gear, Read On:

Of all the OTC meds you can take, the ones you need to be more mindful of as a diver are:

  • Antihistamines – (Benadryl, Claritin) help relieve allergy and cold symptoms. May cause drowsiness, impairing your judgement and slowing reaction times.
  • Decongestants and cough suppressants – (Sudafed, Robitussin) help reduce sinus congestion and cough. May cause nervousness, jitteriness, rapid heartbeat, weakness, and dizziness because they affect the central nervous system. May increase your risk of barotrauma (ear or lung injury due to pressure changes).
  • Anti-inflammatory agents and analgesics – (Advil, Tylenol) relieve pain. No real side effects but masks original pain, which can lead to further injury. Avoid aspirin because it’s a blood thinner and cuts will bleed more.

Knowing you have to be careful with these might come as a slight buzzkill. After all, we take these all the time, right? Yes, but taking them while exposing your body to pressure, cold and other changes in the environment can make OTC and prescription medications act differently.

Meds may even make you feel worse than the condition you’re trying to alleviate.

Drug Mixing

Side effects, after all, come from the main ingredient(s). Unless you are a physician or pharmacist, it’s sometimes difficult to understand how drugs can react to one another. “Stacking” or taking two or more drugs that do the same thing is common among divers. If you’re not careful, these drugs can have adverse effects when combined, leading to an onset of side effects or worse.

You should be especially cautious about drugs that treat multiple symptoms and are a cocktail of drugs themselves (e.g., multi-symptom cold relief), or even better — avoid them entirely.

When “stacking,” be safe and smart — don’t double active ingredients and don’t take the drugs too close together. To be even safer, do a test on land a few days prior to diving to see how your body responds. And don’t forget alcohol in the beer, wine or drinks you’re consuming can cause more severe drug side effects!

Medical Conditions That May Require Meds:

With diving, you can never be too cautious with anything. Even though you may take medications for health conditions and experienced no issues, being in a different environment can change the outcome. It’s wise to know what the side effects of each drug you take are, and to prepare for them. In general, you should talk to your doctor first if you have or take medication for:

  • high blood pressure
  • breathing issues (e.g.COPD)
  • heart conditions
  • thyroid disease
  • glaucoma
  • difficulty passing urine due to your prostate
  • diabetes
  • stomach problems (heartburn, stomach pain, ulcer)
  • gout
  • arthritis
  • asthma

Under Pressure:

Another thing to think of is “how do these drugs respond underwater?” Certain drugs don’t do well under pressure. Moreover, many drugs aren’t tested for an underwater environment, where nitrogen builds up in your blood. The concerns here are not only the drug acting adversely in general, but also bring on nitrogen narcosis. Certain drugs can impair your cognitive abilities or bring on fatigue and drowsiness (both are common for seasickness medications, for example). If the drug affects you negatively on land, presume it might be even worse under water.

The Bottom Line:

While it may be really tough to have to sit out a dive or two because of a stuffy head or illness, taking some OTC meds or diving with head congestion can lead to injury or even death if something goes really wrong. Snorkel instead, or use the time to explore something on land if you’re on vacation!

While we at Scuba Toys have talked about some of these medications and their effects in this post, it’s important that you do your research about any medication you’re taking prior to diving (Divers Alert Network (DAN) is a great place to start!) and talk to your doctor. No dive is worth your health!

Have you experienced any problems diving while taking either OTC or prescription medication? Let us know in the comments below!

Image Attribution: https://www.flickr.com/photos/wegotkidz/

Article Name
OTC Drugs and Diving - Here's What You Should Now
While it may seem harmless enough to pop a decongestant into your mouth prior to diving, many OTC drugs can cause side effects that are stronger in an underwater environment.

3 responses to “OTC Drugs and Diving – Here’s What You Should Know”

  1. Adam Boyers says:

    This is something I never thought about until I had a bad experience. I was diving once and began to feel extremely loopy. Fortunately, I cut the dive short and relaxed afterward. Later on, it occurred to me that I had taken some Benedryl earlier in the day. Not a good feeling at all and not one I’ve ever experienced with Benedryl before.

  2. Cally says:

    I had a bad experience too. Not thinking, I took something for motion sickness before boarding the boat. I find out shortly thereafter, it wasn’t such a good idea.

  3. Zak says:

    Thank you! I have just started diving earlier this year. I take a few medications on a regular basis and will have to do more research to see if they’re safe.

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