Bad drugs

We all know drugs can mess you up. People overdose all the time. Most certainly any use of illegal drugs will be a career killer and most likely will get your license not just suspended, but revoked. This isn’t big news, except perhaps to the infinitely small number of mariners who think they can beat the system.

But prescribed drugs can mess you up too. We hear lots about addiction to prescription pain killers. But even the most common prescriptions — including over-the-counter drugs that usually don’t have harmful side effects — can sneak up on you and knock you out of commission. The National Maritime Center closely scrutinizes any prescription drugs mariners might take to ensure that their effects don’t impede their abilities to be fit to stand watch. NVIC 04-08 Medical and Physical Evaluation Guidelines for Merchant Mariner Credentials covers everything you need to know about this sort of stuff. Everyone who has a license, are applying for licenses or upgrades, or are renewing licenses should be very familiar with this NVIC. There have been too many bad accidents where the mariner(s) involved claimed “the drugs made me do it” and then a laundry list of prescription drugs came to light during the investigation.

But this blog is about your everyday interaction with the most common prescription drugs coupled with, or without, over-the-counter medicines. A number of mariners are cleared for the use of prescription drugs to safely treat a documented condition. This is not uncommon. Sometimes we are temporarily prescribed drugs such as antibiotics after a tooth extraction or similar common procedure to prevent or treat infections. Prescriptions are used to treat things as simple as the common cold or flu. All drugs can have side effects. What could go wrong? The doctor or pharmacy must know if there might be any possible bad drug interactions that could bring a mariner to his or her knees or even put them in the hospital. That’s what we expect from medical professionals. It’s not always that simple.

I just got this story from a mariner. The mariner was prescribed and was properly taking prescription drugs for medical conditions that had been cleared by NMC. He took the drugs regularly for a long period of time and everything seemed normal. Then a simple and temporary procedure — not debilitating at all — was performed and some common post operative drugs were prescribed to prevent infection. 

It seemed the doctor prescribed an antibiotic as a simple and prudent post-op procedure. While the chances of interaction with other prescriptions was low, there is always some possibility of problems. After a few days the patient started feeling light headed, then dizzy and then disoriented. He was never unconscious, but he couldn’t tell what end was up. Yet, he was following the doctor’s orders. Had he been driving his car there could have been a deadly wreck. Worse, had he been piloting his boat, especially with barges and hazardous tank barges, really bad things could have happened if he had been incapacitated at the wheel.

The mariner, who luckily was ashore at the time of the incident, ended up in the hospital for three days and underwent tests. Fortunately no illnesses were found, but it was determined that the unlucky mariner had a severe adverse drug interaction caused by the temporary prescription. It wasn’t any picnic. He was then properly prescribed and after a few days of rest was as good as new.

Pay attention to what drugs your doctors prescribe. If you fall to the deck, your boat and barges might become unguided missiles until somebody discovers you. A hospital visit might be the least of your worries by then.

Sail Safe! 

About the author

Capt. Peter Squicciarini

Capt. Peter Squicciarini is a licensed master mariner and marine safety specialist at the U.S. Coast Guard Atlantic Area Command in Portsmouth, Va. He has worked on towing, passenger, and fishing vessels, and was a safety and compliance manager for an East Coast tug and barge company. He also served in the Navy as a surface ship officer and commanded several warships. He can be reached at

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