The Five Most Commonly Abused Over-the-Counter Substances

Over-the-counter (OTC) drugs help alleviate symptoms associated with illness or medical conditions. Because these drugs aren’t considered to be addictive, many consider them to be safe to use. However, when OTC drugs are not used in the way they were intended, dangerous health conditions can result.

What Constitutes the Misuse or Abuse of OTC Drugs?

OTC substances can be misused and abused in a number of ways. Several brands of OTC drugs can be mixed together and ingested. They can also be misused when they are taken for the purpose of getting high instead of for symptomatic relief. Taking these products at a higher frequency or in larger doses than directed on the product’s packaging also constitutes misuse and abuse.

Why Do People Abuse OTC Products?

There are many reasons that people turn to OTC drugs. One reason is that these products are readily accessible and cost far less than street drugs. Some may be curious about getting high, and so may choose OTC products because they assume they’re harmless.

OTC drugs can also seem like a viable means to self-medicate for those who are dealing with mental illnesses like PTSD and anxiety. Lack of education about the risks of OTC drugs can also cause abuse to occur. The high that some OTC products produce may help to alleviate stress and emotional pain, such as when a person feels isolated due to strained relationships.

Peer pressure can also be the reason that a person misuses OTC drugs. This is especially true among teens, who have a strong desire to fit in and so may take these products to achieve a feeling of belonging. OTC drugs can also be abused when they’re used for recreational purposes, such as for relaxing after a stressful day.

These products may also be used to enhance the effects of other substances which have become less effective due to abuse. For example, a person may not get the same high from alcohol as they used to, and so may take OTC drugs to achieve it.

Who Is Most at Risk for OTC Drug Abuse?

According to the following over the counter drug abuse statistics, teens are most at risk for abusing OTC drugs. The DEA found that almost 1 of every 10 teens has abused an OTC drug for the purpose of getting high.1 A study by the University of Cincinnati revealed that, of 54,000 students surveyed, 10% of students between the 7th and 12th grades admitted to abusing OTC drugs.2

It’s important to remember, OTC drugs are still drugs. The assumption that OTC drugs are safe to use, even at higher dosages than recommended, is incorrect and dangerous.

5 Commonly Abused OTC Drugs

There are many over the counter drugs that get you high, but the following 5 types are typically more abused than others.

1. Laxatives

Those with eating disorders like bulimia or anorexia have an intense fear of gaining weight and go to extreme lengths to continuously lose weight. Laxatives can seem like a viable solution to achieving this goal. However, the use of laxatives won’t cause weight loss, as they act on the large intestine and not the small intestine where foods and calories are absorbed. When used in high quantities, this OTC product can cause an electrolyte imbalance in the body, leading to severe dehydration and stress on major organs.

2. Antihistamines

Used to treat allergy symptoms, antihistamines are also used for the relief of insomnia and cold symptoms. The most widely used antihistamine is Diphenhydramine, which is typically mixed with alcohol to enhance the drug’s sedative effects. Prolonged use of antihistamines in high doses with alcohol can cause liver dysfunction, heart palpitations, confusion, and irritability. They can also cause double vision and low blood pressure.

3. Decongestants

Decongestants like Sudafed contain pseudoephedrine, which, when taken according to directions, can relieve the symptoms associated with colds and allergies. Taken in high doses to get high, this OTC drug can produce feelings of euphoria and increase energy levels. However, excessive amounts of pseudoephedrine can also drastically increase heart rate, raise blood pressure, and cause hallucinations and seizures.

4. Cough Medicines

Pill, cough syrups, and gel capsule formulations of cough medicine contain Dextromethorphan.

Also called DXM, this OTC drug can be ingested by swallowing the pills, as well as by adding it to soda, which is referred to as “skittling” or “robo-tripping.” It can also be injected.

When consumed in high doses, DXM can be hallucinogenic, making one feel separated from their body or environment, and cause impaired motor function, blurred vision, high blood pressure, and rapid heartbeat, along with numbness of the extremities and nausea.

5. Pain Relievers

Some OTC pain relievers such as acetaminophen and Tylenol are effective to get rid of a headache or a body sprain. They work by raising the pain threshold, which makes it more difficult to feel pain. As well, they help to reduce high body temperature.

Taken in high doses, both can produce feelings of calmness and relaxation. Abuse can cause permanent brain and liver damage, as well as low oxygen levels.

Man Fighting Withdrawal Signs

Signs of Addiction and Withdrawal

It’s important to know the signs and long-term effects of OTC drugs. If you or loved ones are experiencing the following signs, it’s important to seek help as soon as possible:

  • Withdrawal from friends or family
  • Changes to personality or mood
  • Seeming to always be on edge
  • Lack of interest in social activities or personal hygiene
  • Noticeable drop in performance at work or school

It’s also important to be aware of the withdrawal symptoms associated with OTC drug abuse because they can be severe, taxing major organs and further damaging health. Recognizing the symptoms of withdrawal early can help you or loved ones receive treatment to manage symptoms while they receive addiction help. Common withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Anxiety
  • Confusion
  • Mood swings
  • Muscle and bone pain
  • Restlessness
  • Vomiting and diarrhea

Girl Depressed and Seeking Help for Drug Addiction

How to Get Help for OTC Drug Addiction

Recovery from addiction is difficult, even more so without the proper guidance and medical attention. Managing the symptoms of withdrawal while applying a progressive approach to recovery is absolutely essential for success. However, using one treatment program for all addiction recovery situations is simply not the answer. A personalized approach that addresses the mental, physical, and spiritual aspects of addiction is an effective solution

Intensive outpatient treatment programs, or IOPs, allow you to personalize your treatment plan. This flexibility can provide you with the help you need as you continue to live at home, be with your family, and attend school or work. IOPs offer you education about addiction, providing you with the tools you need to maintain lifelong sobriety.

RECO Intensive offers compassionate care in a safe and healthy environment, providing you with a team of specialists. They include case managers, behavioral health technicians, medical doctors, and primary therapists. Our team helps you learn how to prevent relapse and live a healthier life as you heal and rebuild your relationships. Discover how intensive outpatient therapy can help you or a loved one with OTC addiction.




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