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OTC Withdrawal

There are a variety of over-the-counter drugs available in drug stores all over the United States. For the most part, these drugs are mild, and they’re used to remedy common ailments.

Anyone with coughs, stuffy noses, cuts and scrapes, and other issues can find relief without a prescription. OTC drugs are determined by governmental regulatory bodies to have a low liability for abuse and probably won’t cause severe side effects. 

However, some of them can be fairly potent, especially in high doses. Others can be used by clandestine chemists to create new, more potent chemicals.

In some cases, a state will recognize that an OTC drug is being abused, and they’ll start to track it, looking for people that might be buying it in large amounts.

Though OTC drugs are generally mild, it’s important to take them as directed and to speak to a doctor if you encounter unpleasant symptoms.

Person sorting through packs of pills in a shopping aisle

If you take a lot of an OTC drug, you may even encounter unpleasant withdrawal symptoms.

It’s important to note that OTC drugs aren’t necessarily safer to use recreationally than prescription drugs. Abusing a chemical substance can always be dangerous.

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Most Commonly Abused OTC Medicines

Pseudoephedrine is a nasal decongestant that can be found in a variety of OTC medications. As of the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005, the drug can’t be found on pharmacy shelves and instead is bought and sold from behind the counter. On its own, the drug clears nasal pathways in people with colds. But when it’s mixed with other chemicals, it can be used to make methamphetamine, the powerful illicit stimulant. The act also limits the amount of the drug an individual can buy and requires identification for purchase.

You can find this chemical in OTC drugs like Dramamine, which is used to prevent motion sickness. When it’s used as directed before a flight or boat ride, it can prevent uncomfortable nausea and vomiting that’s caused by motion that might bother your equilibrium. However, in high doses, it can also cause delirium, hallucinations, amnesia, and confusion. Unlike pseudoephedrine, it can be easily obtained over the counter.

Medications like Benadryl use this drug for its antihistamine properties. It can remedy itching that can be caused by some allergies and irritants. The drug is also found in some OTC sleep-aids because of its ability to cause drowsiness. Like more powerful depressants, the drug can be abused to cause a mild euphoria. If you get used to the drug, stopping suddenly can cause irritability, fatigue, insomnia, sweating, diarrhea, and restlessness.

Common Withdrawal Symptoms from OTC Drugs

There are scores of OTC medications that are available to take. They can each cause a range of side effects and withdrawal symptoms that are unique. However, there are a few common ones that you may want to ask your doctor about if they arise. Symptoms may include:

  • Dizziness
  • Drug cravings
  • Irritability
  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Mood swings
  • Fatigue

OTC withdrawal is usually mild and goes away after a day or so. However, if you abuse the drug to the point of chemical dependence, it may cause more severe symptoms when you try to quit. When taking any medication, it’s essential to speak to a doctor if you encounter uncomfortable or persistent side effects, even if you’ve just recently stopped taking the drug.


National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018, March 6). Prescription CNS Depressants. Retrieved from

National Institute on Drug Abuse. Over-The-Counter Medicines. December 2017. (Retrieved May 2019) from

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2019, November). 8: Definition of dependence. Retrieved from from

RxList. (2017, April 11). Pseudoephedrine (Sudafed): Side Effects, Dosages, Treatment, Interactions, Warnings. Retrieved from

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Legal Requirements for the Sale and Purchase of Drug Products Containing Pseudoephedrine, Ephedrine, and Phenylpropanolamine. (Retrieved May 2019) from

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