Understanding Over-the-Counter Drug Addiction and Treatment

Heroin and methamphetamine come to mind immediately when most people think about the dangers of drug addiction. However, over-the-counter (OTC) drugs can also pose significant health risks to Americans. In fact, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) noted that OTC drugs (along with prescription drugs) are the most commonly abused substances in the U.S. after alcohol and marijuana.

Over-the-counter drug abuse is so widespread, in part, because the substances are very accessible. Additionally, many users don’t realize that OTC drugs can be addictive, and this error in judgment can encourage individuals to misuse a substance they buy from off the shelf in their local pharmacy.

The reality is that nearly any drug has the potential for harm if used incorrectly. More information about the major risks associated with OTC drugs can help consumers make smarter, healthier decisions about medication.

The Most Commonly Abused OTC Drugs

One reason that OTC drugs are abused so easily is that most friends and family do not think to monitor how a loved one uses medication from a pharmacy. Paying closer attention to what and how a person uses OTC drugs, however, makes it easier to get loved ones the help they need as quickly as possible.

The following OTC medications historically have a high risk of abuse and addiction:

  • Pseudoephedrine: This drug is commonly found in nasal decongestants such as Sudafed, and some people use the substance to illegally produce methamphetamine.
  • Caffeine: While caffeine is perfectly safe in small doses, an overdose of caffeine can easily result in life-threatening symptoms, such as irregular heartbeat, hallucinations, convulsions and breathing difficulties.
  • Acetaminophen: A mild analgesic drug used to treat pain and fever, acetaminophen can be combined with a long list of other medications. Abuse risks include acute liver failure, stomach pains, convulsions, and coma.

Other Commonly Abused OTC Drugs

Not all over-the-counter medications are abused as often as others. However, almost any medication has some potential for addiction. Awareness is key when it comes to preventing yourself or a loved one from developing a dependency.

The following OTC drugs are extremely accessible and seemingly harmless, yet ripe for abuse:


This nonsteroidal, anti-inflammatory drug is commonly found in the over-the-counter section of the pharmacy. Ibuprofen works by limiting the body’s ability to produce the chemicals that induce pain and inflammation. Though ibuprofen is not naturally addictive, it is possible for individuals to become dependent on the drug as a form of pain management.

Diet Pills

Colorful diet pills were once sold everywhere from pharmacies to grocery store aisles. However, greater scrutiny of unregulated medications revealed that these mysterious dietary supplements are not as harmless as they may appear.

According to the Food and Drug Administration, many of these diet pills contain unknown quantities of prescription drugs, controlled substance, and potentially dangerous chemicals. As a result, diet pills represent an unpredictable risk for abuse and addiction.

Cough Syrup

Popular OTC cough syrups such as NyQuil and Robitussin contain dextromethorphan (DXM), a drug that produces psychoactive side effects when taken in excess. In excessive doses, DXM mimics the dissociative properties of street drugs such as ketamine and PCP. Young people typically abuse cough syrups containing DXM because of its euphoric effects and because the substance is easily accessible at most drug and grocery stores.

Allergy Medication

Antihistamine, a chemical developed to manage the activity of the body’s histamine’s receptors, is a major ingredient in several OTC allergy medications. Some individuals abuse allergy medication to take advantage of antihistamines moderate hallucinatory effects.

Antihistamines also come with a long list of negative side effects, including nausea, disorientation, and fever. Long-term abuse of antihistamines also makes the individual more vulnerable to dependence and liver failure.

The Dangers of Mixing OTC Drugs and Alcohol

OTC drug abuse is inherently risky, but the practice becomes even more dangerous when individuals abuse these substances with alcohol. Acetaminophen is commonly used as part of a hangover cure, but doing so during or soon after drinking alcohol is extremely unsafe. That’s because alcohol greatly magnifies the liver damage that can be caused by acetaminophen. In some cases, this liver damage is irreversible.

Alcohol is also regularly mixed with cough syrups, especially those containing DXM. Long-term mixing of DXM and alcohol can result in life-threatening respiratory problems. The more often alcohol and OTC drugs are consumed together, the higher the risk is for the individual.

Using OTC Drugs Safely

If you or a loved one is currently using an OTC drug, then you should take care to administer the medication correctly. Failure to do so carries with it heavy health and addiction risks. Thankfully, taking OTC drugs appropriately is easy.

Follow these steps to protect yourself and your family from OTC drug abuse and addiction.

  • Review Instructions: Take the time to carefully read the Drug Facts label found on OTC medication. Pay close attention to the chemicals contained in the OTC medication, including the appropriate dosage.
  • Follow Directions: Once you’ve reviewed the Drug Facts label, follow the printed instructions to the letter. OTC drug abuse often starts after individuals begin to self-prescribe doses of medication.
  • Ask Questions: If you are unsure about how much or how often to take an OTC medication, do not experiment until you find a suitable dosage. Instead, talk to a physician or a pharmacist about how to correctly administer your medication.

When It’s Time for OTC Drug Addiction Treatment

You and your loved ones don’t need to deal with OTC drug addiction alone. Overdose deaths and health complications related to OTC drug abuse can be prevented if individuals can get access to the help they need.

Get in touch with The Treatment Center by The Recovery Village if you fear that OTC drug abuse is threatening the safety of your family. You can reach our admissions counselors 24/7 at (866) 295-6003 if you have questions about over-the-counter drug addiction and treatment.

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