Over-the-counter medications are ones that can be sold directly to individuals without a prescription. These medications are designed to treat a variety of ailments that cause discomfort. Among them are pains, coughs, diarrhea, constipation, acne, and many others.

The problem is some of these medications have active ingredients that hold a potential for misuse and abuse at higher-than-recommended doses. People who have an OTC addiction are at risk of having serious health problems such as memory loss, kidney failure, heart problems, and in some cases, death.

Controlling an OTC drug addiction can be challenging, in part, because the drug of choice is legal and access is easy and widespread. For some people, avoiding dependence on store-bought medicines has proven difficult. Still, over-the-counter addiction is less common among substance abuse disorders. The warning signs are less evident than drugs like alcohol or marijuana, but knowing what to look can make it easier to identify Because these medications are designed for a specific purpose, they are beneficial when treating the ailments they were approved for, but abusing such medications can lead to deadly outcomes.

Many different types of OTC medicines that hold the potential for abuse including dextromethorphan (DXM), pseudoephedrine, dimenhydrinate, and even the pain reliever acetaminophen, which is found in Tylenol. This is just a list of the more commonly abused over-the-counter medications; many more are at risk of being abused.

Research has shown a strong link between teens and over-the-counter medication drug abuse. This is primarily because of the availability of the substances. In recent times, however, there have been restrictions and policy changes at pharmacies and supermarkets throughout the country for these drugs, but this is a matter still requiring more attention to find out how it can be resolved.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse classifies over-the-counter drugs as one of the most commonly abused substances in the United States behind alcohol and marijuana. The lack of surveillance mechanisms make it much more difficult to obtain national data on the topic, but medical literature supports that this is a growing issue. It is widely through that because over-the-counter medications are legal, there is a false sense of safety attributed to these products, but that is not true. Despite seeming safe on the surface, they are actually dangerous. To achieve a high from these drugs, the user must consume them in large doses, which leads to a greater chance of overdose.

The best way to prevent overdose or serious health consequences is to read the directions on the package and talk with a pharmacist about questions you have. If you find yourself ignoring this advice, there is a possibility that you could be misusing and abusing these medications, an addiction that could take over your life. Drug addiction starts off as something innocent but can quickly turn into something out of control.

OTC drug addiction is when abuse occurs to self-medicate for any mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety. In high doses, these drugs can give the user a sense of euphoria that numbs the pain of mental illnesses. Any use outside of what is recommended is considered abuse.

Types of OTC Drugs

While there is a plethora of over the counter medications that hold the potential for abuse, the most commonly found are in medications you wouldn’t expect to find them in. These drugs include, but are not limited to:


It is also referred to as “pseudo” on the streets. It is an ingredient in medications like Sudafed with the intended purpose of treating symptoms of the common cold such as nasal congestion and upper respiratory problems. It is a stimulant by nature, but it is used to shrink swollen nasal membranes, which allows for improved breathing when treating the common cold. This is a popular ingredient among people who “cook” methamphetamine.


On the street, DXM has been given the nickname “poor man’s psychosis” in part because of the effects the user feels when ingesting it. It causes an intense intoxication known as “robotripping” when the recommended dose is exceeded, but it could be followed by side effects of nausea, vomiting, and extreme drowsiness.


The main purpose of dimenhydrinate is to treat motion sickness, but its popularity among teens grew once it was found out that exceeding the dose leads to a high. It does not seem like a drug with the potential for abuse. When used properly it provides relief, but it can be deadly when the prescribed dose is exceeded.

While the drugs mentioned above are only the tip of the iceberg of medicines that can be sold over the counter, these are the most commonly abused. If you or a loved one is abusing OTC medications, seeking help immediately can help reduce the long-term effects linked to over-the-counter drug addiction.

Signs & Symptoms of OTC Drug Abuse

In the earlier stages of OTC drug abuse, signs of use will not be as prevalent. But over time, as the dose increases to achieve their desired high, there will be a handful of erratic behaviors that can be attributed to using. If you suspect that a loved one is abusing OTC drugs, here are some warning signs to look for:

  • User is socially withdrawn
  • Short-term memory problems
  • Noticeable changes in personality or mood
  • Slurred speech similar to alcohol
  • Decreased production at work or school
  • Appetite changes
  • Weight loss or weight gain

If you or someone you know exhibits these signs or symptoms, treatment should be a strong consideration. The first step is familiarizing oneself with the effects. Just because these are drugs that can be purchased effortlessly from a supermarket or pharmacy, it doesn’t mean they don’t hold the same risks for death when abused. This is true of any other drug. These medications, in particular, are very hard on the liver and kidneys.

Dangers Linked to OTC Drugs

Abusing any drugs carries with it the risk of adverse side effects, but this can be even truer when it refers to teens and/or young adults. Teens and young adults are still in the developmental phases of their lives, and abusing body-altering chemicals can result in stunted development. Here are some of the short-term side effects associated with these drugs:

  • Dizziness
  • Coordination changes
  • Hair loss
  • Hallucinations
  • Blurry vision
  • Hot flashes
  • Menstrual cycle irregularities

These are problems that can be linked to casual use, and as an addiction develops and becomes more widespread, the dangers can become even more severe. Long-term problems users can experience include:

  • Kidney failure
  • Liver failure
  • Heart problems
  • Stroke risk

These are not symptoms that should be brushed under the rug. These hold the potential to cause catastrophic damage for the rest of the user’s life. Do not take these signs and symptoms lightly. Seek help now.

Treatment for OTC Drug Abuse

Detox is the first step in the continuum of care when it comes to treating addiction. It is often referred to as one of the most intense parts of the process in drug treatment of any kind, and detox for OTC drugs is no different. Although these drugs are not considered physically addictive, they do pose psychological addictions that can lead to severe health problems.

Those who engage in OTC drug addiction more frequently use several drugs at once time. In most cases, those who abuse along with OTC medications will require a medical detox. This will allow them to stabilize for the next step in the treatment continuum.

When clients start the detox process, they meet with a team of medical and addiction care professionals and go through a medical assessment. This process will include creating a medical plan customized for recovery success. It will review drug use history, medical history, and even mental health and wellness. The plan will include medications that will be administered, how long you should remain in detox, and which type of therapies will be adequate for your needs.

In detox, clients are monitored for 24 hours a day, and medical staff is on hand to dispense medication and ensure clients are responding appropriately to the treatment. Not all stays are typical, and the purpose of the staff is to improvise as needed to meet your needs.

When the detox period ends, which can take at least five to seven days or more if needed, the next step of treatment for someone with OTC drug addiction is to enter an inpatient/residential treatment program. They can stay anywhere from 30 days to 90 days, depending on their medical plan. This hiatus from their daily lives forces them to face their substance abuse issues and remain safe from triggers in the outside world. They will attend therapies designed to address addiction at its core and be in the presence of others who are on the same journey to recovery.

After successful stints in detox and an inpatient/residential facility, the recovering user will have the option to connect with supportive networks, resources, and activities that promote sobriety. These are all critical for people in recovery, especially those who are new to it. Some facilities have alumni programs that offer outings, personal follow-up support, and encouragement to form lasting bonds with clients who have similar stories and struggles. Addiction is a lifelong disease with no cure, but knowing there is support will be the difference between maintaining sobriety and walking the tightrope of addiction.

Over-The-Counter Drug Abuse Statistics

  • While there are nearly 54,000 pharmacies in the U.S., there are 750,000 retail outlets that sell OTC products
  • Of the 2.1 million hospital visits relating to drug abuse, 27.1% involved nonmedical use of pharmaceutical (OTC medications)
  • 80,000 people visit the emergency room each year due to acetaminophen overdose‒as many as 980 of those die each year
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