Can Over-the-Counter Drugs Be Dangerous and Addictive?

Medically Reviewed

Over-the-counter (OTC) drugs are sold directly to individuals in pharmacies or grocery stores without a prescription. The medications are created to treat various ailments that cause discomfort. Among these are coughs, pain, diarrhea, acne, constipation, and many others.

The primary issue is that the medications have active ingredients that can be addictive or misused if higher doses are used than recommended. Those with an OTC addiction are at a higher risk of severe health problems, which include kidney failure, memory loss, heart problems, and potentially death.

It may be easy to lose control of an OTC drug addiction due to legality and easy access. For some, it may be difficult to avoid dependence on store-bought medication. Fortunately, over-the-counter addiction isn’t as common as other substance use disorders. The warning signs, however, are more challenging to determine. Knowing what these signs look like will make it easier to spot in someone abusing the drugs.

Several OTC medicines hold the potential for abuse. These include pseudoephedrine, dextromethorphan (DMX), dimenhydrinate, and even acetaminophen, commonly found in Tylenol. Other OTC drugs hold the potential for abuse, but these are the most frequently used.

Researchers have found a link between teens and OTC drug abuse. The research shows the availability of the products is a top reason why teens are abusing these drugs. There have been restrictions placed to make purchasing the substances a little more complicated, but it requires more attention than just restricting their purchase. Over-the-counter medicines can be dangerous and addictive when they are abused. Let’s take a look at how these medications interact with the body.

What is OTC Drug Abuse?

Over-the-counter drug abuse is seen as one of the more common drug addictions behind alcohol and marijuana. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) mentions that the lack of surveillance mechanisms makes it more difficult to obtain national data on the topic. Still, the literature supports the idea that it is a growing issue. Users may feel a false sense of safety when using the products based solely on the legality of the substances. While it may seem safe on the surface, there are hidden dangers. To achieve intoxication, users must consume large doses, which puts them at a higher risk of overdosing.

The only way to prevent overdose or severe health consequences is to follow the directions listed on the package or speak with a pharmacist. If you ignore this advice, it can be an indicator you are starting to abuse the medication. You may be on the fast track to addiction. It may start as something innocent that you can control, but it can soon spiral and cause a life of destruction and pain.

Types of OTC Drugs

There are several types of over-the-counter drugs that can be abused, but below we will examine the most commonly abused OTC drugs. They include, but are not limited to:

  • Pseudoephedrine: The drug is commonly known as “pseudo” on the street, and it is the active ingredient in Sudafed. It is designed to treat symptoms of the common cold. It is a stimulant drug by nature, but it can shrink swollen nasal membranes and allow for improved airflow when someone is sick. It is a popular ingredient among those who cook methamphetamine.
  • Dextromethorphan (DXM): The drug is commonly referred to as a “poor man’s psychosis” because of the intense experience it causes. The intoxication is referred to as “robotripping” when the standard dose is exceeded. It may be met with severe side effects, such as extreme drowsiness, nausea, and vomiting.
  • Dimenhydrinate: The primary purpose of dimenhydrinate is to treat symptoms attributed to motion sickness. Unfortunately, it grew popular with teens when they found exceeding the intended dose could lead to a high. It would not strike the average person as having an abuse potential. When used as prescribed, it is a highly effective medication, but it can cause grave dangers when a specific dose is exceeded.

Signs and Symptoms of OTC Drug Abuse

It will be difficult to determine if someone is abusing OTC drugs early in their addiction. As their dosage increases over time, they will start to display erratic behavior that is attributed to drug abuse. Some warning signs to look for include:

  • Withdrawing socially
  • Short-term problems with memory
  • Changes in personality or mood
  • Slurred speech similar to alcohol intoxication
  • Decreased output at work or school
  • Appetite changes
  • Weight loss or weight gain

If you or someone you know is showing signs of OTC addiction, you must strongly consider seeking treatment. The first step is understanding the effects and becoming familiar with the changes that may be occurring. Despite the drugs being purchased effortlessly, death can still be a side effect of abuse. While it may ring true for all drugs, these OTC medications are hard on the liver and kidneys. OTC medicine may also cause stunted development in teens and young adults in the developmental phase of their lives.

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