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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 OTC medications like motion sickness pills or cough medicines to be safe to use, with teens and young adults often assuming that OTC medications are less dangerous than alcohol or other drugs. However, when OTC drugs are not used in the way they were intended, dangerous health conditions and side effects ranging from mild and transitory, like blurred vision or dizziness, to those as severe as irregular heartbeat and brain damage.

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. Serious side effects and other long term problems may result.

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 and lack the means to get help. Lack of education about the risks of OTC drugs among teens and young adults 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. Teens and young adults may feel like the dangerous side effects of these drugs are outweighed by the need to fit in or escape via euphoria and hallucinations.

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. Serious side effects can occur when someone attempts to mix OTC medications with alcohol and other drugs even more so than the side effects when either is used alone.

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. Though the food and drug administration doesn’t regulate drugs like over the counter medications as strictly as illegal substances, that doesn’t mean that abuse cannot cause long term adverse effects. The DEA found that almost 1 of every 10 teens has abused an OTC drug for the purpose of getting high. 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.

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. Someone who is abusing OTC medications to get high should get help as soon as possible rather than risk serious side effects like brain damage.

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. Drugs like 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 dangerous side effects like an electrolyte imbalance in the body, leading to severe dehydration, irregular heartbeat, and stress on major organs.

2. Antihistamines

Used to treat allergy symptoms, antihistamines are also used for the relief of insomnia and cough and cold symptoms. Certain antihistamines like promethazine might also be used as motion sickness pills as well as as cold medicines. The most widely used antihistamine is an OTC medication called 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 serious side effects like liver dysfunction, heart palpitations, confusion, and irritability. They can also cause double or blurred vision and low blood pressure.

3. Decongestants

Decongestants like Sudafed contain the active ingredient 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

Decongestants aren’t the only cough and cold medicines that can be abused. Pill, cough syrups, and gel capsule formulations of cough medicine contain the active ingredient Dextromethorphan, which is another OTC medication that people use to get high. Teens and young adults might seek out these cough medicines desiring euphoria and hallucinations but not realizing that they risk dangerous side effects.

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. Because of these side effects, drugs like cough medicines should be taken seriously as drugs of abuse even if they are available as over the counter medications.

5. Pain Relievers

Some OTC pain relievers such as Tylenol, which has an active ingredient of acetaminophen, are effective to get rid of a headache or a body sprain. These OTC medications 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. But it is not without its adverse effects; abuse can cause long term side effects like permanent brain damage 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 from a qualified treatment center 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. To find long term recovery from drugs like cough and cold medicines and other OTC medications of abuse, you need a treatment center that can assess you as the unique individual you are and that will invest in your long term success.

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 and be with your family. Teens and young adults can continue to attend school, while others will be able to get help and still go to 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 and contact our treatment center today at (561) 464-6533. With our help, over the counter medications will no longer be able to rule your life, and you can get back to a brighter future.




  1. https://www.uc.edu/news/articles/legacy/enews/2012/10/e16780.html


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