Over-the-counter (OTC) drugs are legal drugs that you can acquire without a prescription. They are sold in pharmacies, grocery stores, and even gas stations. Chances are that you use these drugs all the time to treat your colds and headaches. In their intended doses, these drugs pose little to no risk. However, the problem occurs when OTC drugs are used in large doses, especially with the intention of achieving some sort of “high.”
There is a misconception that because OTC drugs are more readily available than illegal drugs and prescription drugs, they are safer. While, again, OTC drugs are safe when used responsibly, hundreds of OTC drugs contain psychoactive chemicals that people may try to maximize for recreational use. Partly because of their social acceptance and partly because of their widespread availability, OTC drugs can seem like an easy and relatively safe option.
According to the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine (1), people who misuse and abuse OTC drugs tend to be younger (under the age of 26), mix the OTC drugs with alcohol, and use OTC drugs when prescription and/or illicit drugs are not available.
While dangerous in and of itself, OTC drug abuse is particularly dangerous when considering that it is disproportionately prevalent among younger people. Substance abuse problems in adulthood are almost always preceded by drug use in adolescence and young adulthood. OTC drug abuse, then, sets up young people up for substance use issues down the road.
The following are OTC medications most prone to abuse:
Cough & Cold Medications
Cough and cold medications that contain antitussive (a type of cough suppressant) dextromethorphan is the most commonly abused and also a particularly dangerous kind of OTC medication. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that emergeny room admissions due to the use of antitussive agents such as DXM rose considerably between 2004 and 2010.
Often referred to as “DXM” (shorthand for “dextromethorphan”), DXM is an ingredient used to treat cold and flu symptoms as well as allergies. Some common OTC medications containing DXM include NyQuil, Robitussin, Vicks Formula 44, Alka Seltzer Plus, and Tylenol Cough & Cold. Over 100 different additional OTC medications contain DXM, available in all manner of capsules, gel caps, liquids, and lozenges.
Taken in large amounts in frequent intervals, DXM — a dissociative anesthetic like PCP and ketamine — produces psychoactive and even psychedelic effects in its users. While its effects vary depending on the dose, some common effects of DXM abuse include (2):
- hot flashes and sweating
- nausea and vomiting
- dizziness/lack of coordination
- panic attacks and paranoia
- slurred speech
- hypertension (high blood pressure) and tachycardia (racing heart)
- rapid eye movement
More serious consequences of DXM include liver damage, brain damage, and emotional/psychological issues.
Another commonly abused type of OTC medication are medications containing stimulants. These include diet pills, energy drinks, caffeine pills, decongestants, and even some herbal remedies.
Diet medications — this includes appetite suppressants and mild stimulants as well as their herbal counterparts — are particularly prone to abuse. The National Comorbidity Survey Replication, which examines different mental and physical disorders, found that 6 percent of young females and 4 percent of young males abuse OTC diet medications. The abuse of OTC diet medications is also strongly linked to eating disorders. Those afflicted by bulimia behaviors, for example, may use laxatives (a type of stimulant) as a method of purging.
Abusing OTC diet medications come with many risks:
- increased potential for stroke and heart attack
- gastrointestinal issues
- liver and kidney damage
- hallucinations and/or delusions
- emotional/psychologies issues such as depression and anxiety
While herbal counterparts to diet medications may seem safer, herbal diet products are not controlled by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). For instance, the FDA’s ban on the stimulant ephedra, which has serious side effects (e.g., cardiovascular side effects), only applies to dietary aids and not herbal products. Herbal products may therefore contain dangerous substances without our knowledge.
Decongestants often include stimulants such as phenylpropanolamine, pseudoephedrine, and methylephedrine. These stimulants have been linked to cardiovascular issues, hallucinations, and seizures and are often used in the production of methamphetamine — otherwise known as crystal meth.
OTC pain reliever misuse is tricky to detect because it happens as a result not of trying to experience psychoactive effects but of trying to control pain. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory pain medications are the most dangerous kind. Ones containing acetaminophen, for example, can lead to liver damage, kidney damage, and cardiovascular complications.
Motion Sickness Medications
OTC motion sickness medications often contain diphenhydramine and dimenhydrinate. You may know these drugs as Benadryl and Dramamine, respectively. While symptoms of motion sickness medication abuse vary significantly depending on body weight and metabolism, some serious risks include heart attack, seizures, and coma.
Chronic abuse can result in organ damage (e.g., liver and/or kidney damage), cognitive issues (such as problems with memory and learning) and psychological symptoms (e.g., depression).
Treatment for Over-the-Counter (OTC) Drug Abuse
Because a large proportion of those who abuse OTC drugs are younger, early drug education is very important. There are also research-based approaches to helping adolescents with substance issues. The damage is reversible, especially with early intervention and proper treatment.
Whatever your age, there is plenty of help out there for OTC drug abuse, including treatment centers, therapists, and support groups. Call Fort Recovery at 1 (817) 382-9257 today.