Medications that one can buy easily off the shelf at just about any pharmacy are often taken for granted. Consumers think these medications are not as harmless as the ones sold on the street or the prescription drugs that are abused by people who either don’t know or care about the dangers.

But people who think either of these are wrong. OTC drugs or those bought over-the-counter are just as dangerous as street drugs and prescription medications, and people who ignore the labels on them and use them in ways that are inconsistent with their purpose are putting themselves in harm’s way. They are at risk of overdosing or double dosing on OTC medications, a situation that can lead to death or a battle with addiction.

Medications that one can easily buy off the shelf at just about any pharmacy are often taken for granted. Consumers think these medications are not as harmless as the ones sold on the street or the prescription drugs that are abused by people who either don’t know or care about the dangers.

But people who think either of these is wrong. Over-the-counter (OTC) medications are just as dangerous as street drugs or prescription medications.

People who ignore the labels on them and use them in ways that are inconsistent with their purpose are placing themselves in a dangerous position. They are at risk of overdosing or double dosing on OTC medications, which can lead to death or a battle with addiction.

What are Over-The-Counter Medications?

Over-the-counter medications are medications consumers can buy at any store, pharmacy, convenience store, or large discount retailer without a physician’s prescription. The medicines, also known as OTC drugs, are deemed safe and effective when users follow the directions on the label or take them as directed by a medical professional, according to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA).

It is estimated that more than 80 classes of OTC drugs are available to the public. They include pain relievers, allergy medications, and weight-loss products. The medicines that are widely used are those that treat colds and the flu, minor body aches and pains, allergies, and other ailments. They can come in the form of capsules, tablets, eye drops, sprays, and ointments, among other forms. The FDA reviewed the ingredients of these medications and put labels on them.

Over-The-Counter Medications Include:

  • Cough medicines (Delsym, Nyquil, Robitussin, or Theraflu)
  • Allergy medications and decongestants (Sudafed)
  • Antihistamines
  • Motion sickness medication
  • Pain relievers (Acetaminophen, which is found in Tylenol, Excedrin, Dayquil, Mucinex); ibuprofen, which is found in Advil; Motrin)
  • Dietary supplements and laxatives

What are the Signs of OTC Drug Addiction?

People who have a history of substance abuse are at a higher risk of abusing over-the-counter medications or developing OTC drug addiction. The population that is addicted to opioids and/or other drugs may misuse these medications due to some relief uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms cause.

People who use medications and alcohol for an extended period can build a tolerance to those substances and will require more of the medicines to experience the same effects they first time did. Over time, they likely reach a point when they have trouble satisfying intense drug cravings despite what they do. OTC medications may not be enough to relieve the pain or create the highs substance users used to experience.

That, unfortunately, means they can overdose from taking too much of over-the-counter medications, which they likely view a safer alternative to prescription medications or street drugs.

Senior adults, as well as teenagers and young adults, are also among the groups of people who are most likely to misuse over-the-counter drugs. Seniors buy and take more medications than other groups, which means they are at high risk of mistakenly mixing alcohol and medications if they also still drink.

Teens and young adults may trust OTC drugs more because they are generally viewed as medicines they can get from medical professionals or friends or family. They also don’t have to buy OTC medications from a drug dealer on the streets, making the drugs more appealing for misuse and abuse.

Addiction does leave clues in many cases. If you notice the following signs in a loved one, it is possible they could be struggling with over-the-counter drug addiction.

Behavioral and Environmental Signs

  • Multiple empty medicine bottles in their trash
  • Regularly purchasing large amounts of OTC drugs when not medically needed
  • Ordering bulk OTC medications online
  • Noticeable collections of medicine bottles, packs, or sprays in easy-to-reach locations
  • Cold and allergy drugs or pain relievers disappearing from your medicine cabinet

Personal Mental and Physical Signs

  • Significant appetite changes
  • Medicinal scents or odors on their breath, clothing
  • Withdrawal from social situations
  • Appearing depressed or withdrawn
  • A decline in school or work performance
  • Secretive behavior
  • Disrupted sleep or altered sleep pattern
  • A lack of interest in hobbies and activities they previously enjoyed
  • Noticeable mood swings and changes in personality
  • Sudden outbursts of anger
  • Impaired motor skills
  • Difficulty remembering important things
  • Money or valuables suddenly going missing

One of the most important signs is how one feels or behaves when they suddenly stop taking over-the-counter medications after taking them for long periods. If one quits using the drug or cuts back on usage and begins to feel sick or some other way, it is possible they are addicted to over-the-counter medications and will need help. These physical and psychological changes are known as withdrawal.

Some will attempt to do this on their own and quit OTC drug use cold turkey, which is not recommended. An abrupt stop in use is dangerous and for almost all, physically addictive drugs. One reason it’s a risk is that one can easily overdose as they try to appease the intense cravings they feel while trying to manage withdrawal symptoms.

If any of these signs of over-the-counter abuse are recognizable, it may be time to consider getting help. Professional addiction treatment can get you back on track to an addiction-free life.

What is Involved in OTC Drug Addiction Treatment?

People who are struggling with over-the-counter medication abuse may want to consider seeking professional drug rehabilitation treatment at a licensed facility. Such treatment involves different stages and steps. An individualized treatment plan based on age, medical history, the type of over-the-counter medication, duration of use, and co-abused other drugs will be created. A person’s mental health status and history also should be evaluated to determine if there are any co-occurring disorders present and need to be addressed as part of the treatment plan.

Along with things like relapse prevention and 12-step programs, some therapies and programs offered during OTC addiction treatment are:

  • Behavior therapy
  • Family therapy
  • Aftercare services

Some people with OTC drug addiction may want to consider getting help at a licensed drug rehabilitation center that can offer quality treatment. Treatment typically starts with a medical detoxification, or detox for short. This process ensures that any over-the-counter drugs and any other toxic substances safely leave the body.

The process can last anywhere from three to seven days or longer, based on the severity of addiction and whether more than one substance is involved.

Medical professionals monitor clients 24-7 as they are weaned off the drug(s). If appropriate, health care professionals may prescribe a medication that helps to adjust to the absence of drugs in its system.

After detox is done and clients are stable, they are evaluated to see which treatment program they will need to effectively address their addiction. Treatment programs are tailored to an individual’s needs and preferences, so this is the time to be upfront about anything that could make the program more effective. This includes being honest about all substance use, habits and anything else that’s relevant.

Inpatient or residential treatment, which can last from 28-90 days in a facility, depending on the program, involves therapies that can help the person overcome their addiction in the time they need. Treatment also can incorporate 12-step programs, holistic therapy, family therapy, individual and group counseling, and relapse prevention education.

There is also outpatient treatment for people who may be in the early stages of OTC drug addiction or have a mild case of it. Outpatient therapy does not require an on-site stay at a treatment center, an arrangement that gives clients more flexibility as they work drug treatment into their schedules. However, outpatient clients are still required to attend structured sessions three to five times a week or more, depending on the situation.

Recovering OTC drug users may want to consider using aftercare services to help them focus on their recovery goals and reduce their chances of relapse. Some people pursue follow-up medical care and ongoing therapies to help manage post-acute withdrawal symptoms, known as PAWS, which can happen long after dependence on the drug has passed.

How Dangerous is OTC Drug Addiction?

The easy access to OTC drugs, as well as their widespread availability, can lower people’s awareness about the possible dangers, which means people may misuse/abuse them. It is best to keep in mind that OTC medications, despite their lack of a prescription, are still medications.

Misuse of OTC medications can increase the risk of potential side effects. Also, keep in mind that OTC drugs can still cause unfavorable drug or food interactions that can cause complications. The most severe results from OTC drug abuse are addiction and death. Abuse includes:

  • Taking more of the OTC medication than recommended
  • Using OTC drugs in ways that are inconsistent with its purpose or design
  • Combining OTC drugs with other drugs, legal or illegal, and/or alcohol (polysubstance abuse)
  • Using drugs for a length of time that one is now dependent upon them, either physically, psychologically, or both

The Poison Center advises that when it comes to OTC medications, reading and understanding the label the most important part of taking or giving medicine. Over-the-counter substances do contain mind-altering and mood-altering effects that can result in health problems and overdoses that can prove fatal. Irresponsible OTC drug use can cause memory loss, kidney failure, heart problems, and more.

Overdose on OTC Drugs

If overdose occurs, seek immediate medical attention at a hospital or urgent care center, even overdosed on Tylenol or aspirin, which looks as harmless. Midol, Advil, Epsom salts, and cough syrup  are also OTC medications that users can overdose. As mentioned previously, the toxicity of these drugs can happen and negatively affect one’s health.

Ways to Avoid OTC Drug Abuse, Addiction

The OTC Medicine Safety Program offers several tips that can help keep OTC drug users safe. Adults who are teaching children, tweens, and teenagers how to take medicines may also find the guidelines as a helpful resource. They are:

  • Read and follow the medicine label every time.
  • Never share your medicine with someone else or use someone else’s medicine.
  • Remember to always use the dosing device that comes with the medicine.
  • Take only one medicine at a time with the same active ingredient.
  • Store all medicines up and away and out of reach and sight.
  • Take medicines with the permission and guidance from a parent or trusted adult.

OTC Drug Addiction Statistics

  • According to the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, as of 2015, the average American household reportedly spent roughly $338 a year on over-the-counter medication.
  • As of 2018, 81 percent of U.S. adults use OTC drugs as their first line of treatment for minor illnesses.
  • About one of every 10 teenagers has abused an OTC medication for the specific purpose of getting high at least once in their lifetime, according to the Drug Enforcement Association (DEA).
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