Over-the-Counter Addiction: Can OTC Drug Abuse Happen?

OTC drug abuse seems to be more prevalent in younger people, typically under the age of 26. OTC drugs are typically combined with alcohol for their dual effect. These individuals are drawn to OTC drugs when illicit or prescription drugs are not available. In addition, these individuals tend to be Caucasian males or females. Overdose is possible with certain OTC pills, so it’s vital not to underestimate this issue.

What Is OTC Drug Abuse? What Are the Side Effects, and How Does It Develop?

The side effects of OTC drug abuse can vary, depending on what the drugs target. The abuse of OTC drugs usually occurs when the medication is intentionally misused beyond the recommended dosage. There are some OTC drugs with the increased potential of abuse. Self-medication is usually an alternative for someone who doesn’t need to run to the hospital for cold-like symptoms. 

These side effects can include:

  • Loss of motor control
  • Blurry vision
  • Hallucinations
  • Nausea
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Slow Breathing or heart rate
  • Dizziness
  • Tremors

OTC drug abuse can alter the brain in the same ways as other addictive substances. The person will continue to use despite the negative impacts it has on their life and multiple attempts to quit were unsuccessful. Cough medicine and nasal decongestant are some of the common applications of OTC drugs. Pharmacists are readily available to discuss the functions and different brands of medication. When paired with other substances like alcohol or antidepressants, these can have more intense outcomes.

A person dealing with withdrawals of OTC drug abuse might experience:

  • Confusion
  • Mood Swings
  • Irritability

 Why Is It So Difficult to Spot OTC Drug Abuse? 

OTC drug abuse is difficult to spot due to the casualness of their use and how accessible they are to use. It’s in your cabinets and tucked away in your bathroom. The commercials stream throughout the day to remind you of impending sick days. Cough syrup is a commonly used OTC drug that can manifest long-term health effects from heavy use.

What Are Some Of The Most Commonly Abused OTC Pills? 

OTC drug abuse is a growing issue due to how available the options are. The most commonly abused OTC drugs are histamines, sleep aids, and cough syrup (or DXM).

What Is DXM (Dextromethorphan)?

DXM is best described as a cough suppressant that’s typically used in many OTC drugs. DXM has a high potential for abuse. Histamines and decongestants are what you’ll DXM in, with higher doses being abused for their effect. They can come in the form of pills, gel capsules, and syrup. DXM is often mixed with sweet liquids like soda to mask the flavor. DXM is an opioid without all of the activity on the opioid receptors. If you take DXM in large doses, expect a euphoric or hallucinogenic effect. DXM at high doses over time can lead to liver damage.

The effects of DXM range, such as:

  • 100-200mg of DXM, results in stimulation and euphoria
  • 200-400mg of DXM, results in euphoria and hallucinations
  • 300-1500mg of DXM, results in distorted visuals, loss of coordination and out of body experiences

What is Dimenhydrinate?

Dimenhydrinate is designed to alleviate motion sickness. The side effects can vary depending on how much the person weighs and their metabolism. Taking dimenhydrinate in high doses can lead to hallucinations, irregular heartbeat, seizures, coma and even death. In addition, organ failure and other psychological complications such as memory loss could arise from heavy use.

Dramamine is a brand name for the substance loperamide, which can be found in sleep aids. It can produce effects such as dizziness, dry mouth, and increased mucus. Dramamine can have an allergic reaction to some people, and it’s best not to combine it with alcohol. This OTC drug has become popular with teens due to how accessible it is, with the high effect of euphoria and hallucinations on the horizon of large doses. According to Consumer Med Safety, dimenhydrinate is one of the top five OTC drugs to be abused by teens and young adults.

To experience such side effects, the dosage must be between 800-1250mg to activate the hallucinogenic component. Dramamine can be used to self-medicate for conditions such as anxiety or insomnia. However, the combination with other substances can have more drastic impacts on the body. For example, the combination of Dramamine and alcohol will have a harsh impact on the liver, prompting for long-term damage. Overdose can be a serious risk for those who abuse Dramamine, particularly with other drugs.

How Is Loperamide Abused?

Loperamide is an OTC drug used to treat diarrhea. Loperamide is an opioid that is created to not enter the brain. If it’s paired with other substances, it will produce the opposite effect. Loperamide is an OTC drug issued to reduce cravings and other withdrawal symptoms but can cause stomach pain, constipation, loss of consciousness, and kidney problems. Although loperamide use is underreported with mixed use, there’s no denying the health effects of misuse.

What is Acetaminophen?

Acetaminophen is an OTC drug that serves as a pain reliever and is one of the most commonly used drugs. Think of your Tylenol or Aleve sitting on your bathroom counter. It should be noted that acetaminophen is not addictive and users can’t get high from heavy use. Acetaminophen is typically used with other drugs. Overuse of acetaminophen has been linked to liver damage, stomach bleeding and sometimes death; the risks increase particularly with alcohol The recommended dosage is no more than 1000mg at a time for an average adult. 

How Is Pseudoephedrine Abused?

Pseudoephedrine is a decongestant. You’ve probably had the pleasure of using Advil or Mucinex to calm a runny nose. Pseudoephedrine can activate feelings of euphoria and short-term high effects with high doses. Pseudoephedrine has been known to be a component of methamphetamines, with the substance being derived from OTC pills to be made into harsher drugs. In excessive amounts, pseudoephedrine can lead to complications such as heart issues and even seizures.

How Are Stimulants Abused?

Diet and caffeine pills are other forms of OTC drugs with the potential for abuse. Those with eating disorders might seek diet pills as a way of control, often using herbal supplements or appetite suppressants to curb cravings. Laxatives are another resource for those with eating disorders to maintain weight loss. These can have lasting effects on the body and increase the risk of stroke, depression, dehydration, and liver/kidney damage. 

Caffeine is one of the widely known stimulant drugs that are sold openly. From energy drinks to espressos at your local cafe, caffeine is one of those substances that can be abused but it requires more frequent heavy use for more outward consequences. Withdrawals from caffeine might include fatigue, concentration difficulties, anxiety, and depression.

How Can You Take OTC Drugs Safely? 

The best way to take OTC drugs is to take them appropriately with their use. To combat addiction, it’s important to read the instructions and be alert for any allergies you may have. The side effects and ingredients of OTC drugs are typically listed in the labeling.  The body can develop a tolerance to these medications after repeated use so it’s important to monitor your use. Despite the social stigma, you should seek help if you find yourself requiring these OTC drugs to function normally. If you have a pre-existing condition or take prescription medication, OTC pills can have drastic effects on the body.

What Are Treatment Options for OTC Drug Abuse?

There is no comprehensive treatment for OTC drug abuse, although drug detox would be an effective method. There are no medications to treat OTC drug abuse, however, OTC drug abuse is rare but should still be treated with attention. By removing the addictive toxins from the body, our members have an opportunity to bear through the various withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms can become severe but not life-threatening. Finding an outpatient treatment option might be considered if the member requires a more structured but flexible approach. Outpatient treatment options are discreet and you’ll likely find support through groups. 

Individual or group therapy options are available, with CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) being one of the effective ways of treating compulsive behaviors. Seeking the root cause of addiction and developing healthier coping skills is the path toward recovery. It takes plenty of courage and patience with yourself to invest in a new life. Working through these issues with a hobby or team sports will be a great outlet for these feelings you might be having. Journaling poses another opportunity to truly express yourself on this specific journey.

Find Care With Sana Lake

OTC drugs are misconceived to be harmless but the effects can have lasting impacts. Sana Lake is here to ensure the quality of care for your needs. Drug addiction is a disease with multiple remedies to treat the core. If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction, please reach out to us today.