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Signs of Over the Counter (OTC) Drug Abuse & Addiction

Can you be addicted to over-the-counter (OTC) drugs? Learn about the signs of OTC drug abuse, side effects, and how to recover from your addiction.

Most of us have taken some sort of OTC medication at some point in our lives. In fact, it is estimated that nearly 9 out of 10 Americans take OTC medications regularly.

There are a variety of symptoms OTC medications treat, like minor pain, congestion, runny nose, fever, head and body ache, itching and sneezing, sore throat, or diarrhea and stomach discomfort, and with all of the stress and sickness our bodies go through these days, it is no wonder that we tend to explore the many possibilities for relief.

Can you be addicted to over-the-counter drugs?

The answer is yes. Over-the-counter drugs can be just as addictive as prescription or illegal street drugs. Many people are under the misguided impression that OTC medications are not as dangerous as harder drugs, but this is not the case. The risk of accidental overdose is high and the long-term damage done to the brain and body can be life-changing and life-threatening. OTC addiction can also be treated with detox and rehab.

Source: Freepik

Pros & Cons of OTC Medications

Let’s look at some pros and cons of common OTC medications that you may find in your medicine cabinet.

Cough Medicines

Cough medicines like Dayquil or Robitussin or any that have Dextromethorphan or DXM in the ingredients, and are available in syrup, capsule, spray, tablet, or lozenge are often misused and abused, and have a high risk for addiction when not taken as directed.

Dextromethorphan or DXM, is a common ingredient in OTC cough and cold medicines and is effective at helping to stop coughs. It is very often abused by teenagers because it is easy to find in medicine cabinets, which is also why DXM has a high risk for overdose. When taken in large doses, the “high” effect of DXM is mind-altering, much like that of Phencyclidine (PCP), also known as angel dust, and can last for up to 6 hours.

Large doses of DXM can cause vomiting, rapid heart rate, and even brain damage. Taking DXM for longer than directed and in high dosages can cause cognitive degeneration at an alarming rate, and those effects do not go away with abstinence and can result in death.


If you take cold medicines from Advil, Aleve, Claritin, Mucinex, Sudafed, Triaminic, or Tylenol it may include Pseudoephedrine in the ingredients. Other common OTC medications containing Pseudoephedrine are motion sickness pills like Dramamine, Antivert (Bonine), Promethegan Phenergan (promethazine), and Benadryl.

Pseudoephedrine is a decongestant and is common in non-prescription cold medicines to help with a runny nose. Unfortunately, it is also a common ingredient in the illegal and highly addictive street drug methamphetamine “meth”. That is why you may find it locked up or behind a counter in the store and may have to show I.D. or sign for it when buying some.

The side effects of taking too much pseudoephedrine can be serious and may include making you restless, giving you a rapid heartbeat, or make you feel sick and vomit. There are also more dangerous consequences like overdose which may cause hallucinations, slowed heart rate and seizures.

Source: Freepik


Antihistamines are found in hundreds of OTC cold and allergy medicines. Actifed, Benadryl (diphenhydramine), and Tylenol PM are just a few. Antihistamines are also used in sleep aids like Nytol, Sleep-Eze, Unisom, Equate, and Sominex because they can cause drowsiness. They can also be used to control anxiety or to temper side effects of antipsychotic medications. Unfortunately, people can become addicted to OTC sleeping pills by taking more than is recommended for long periods of time and not realize that it’s happening until it is too late and they are addicted.

When used as directed, and sporadically, antihistamines can be helpful in relieving minor issues, but when you have taken an antihistamine for a continuous period of time, and/ or in larger amounts than recommended, you can build up a tolerance to it, making it less effective on your initial issues, and giving you some serious side effects like severe drowsiness, difficulty urinating, headache, rapid heartbeat, confusion, impaired coordination, slowed reflexes, seizures, and coma.

Unfortunately, antihistamines can be abused for their depressant side effects, and most often they are misused in conjunction with alcohol or opioids, which can have dangerous and life-threatening consequences.


We all know what laxatives are supposed to be used for, but when they are abused for weight loss or because of eating disorders it can cause electrolyte imbalances and excessive laxative use may result in GI tract dysfunction, kidney disease, and cardiovascular disorders.

Studies show that 75% of those with bulimia and 32% of people with anorexia abuse laxatives.

Source: Freepik

When is OTC drug consumption dangerous?

  • If you have any pre-existing medical conditions…
  • If you are currently taking any prescribed medication…
  • If you are pregnant or nursing…
  • If you are consuming alcohol…
  • If you are taking street drugs…

You should read the warning label on any OTC medicine and consult your primary care doctor before taking it.

If someone you know is asking you to pick them up OTC medications often, and not just when they are sick, that may be a sign that they are abusing OTC medications.

If you or someone you know has any of the following…

  • Confusion
  • Blurred vision
  • Difficulty Urinating
  • Drowsiness
  • Dizziness
  • Irritability
  • Agitation
  • Anxiety/nervousness
  • Mood changes
  • Shakiness/unsteady walk
  • Slowed breathing


It may be a symptom or sign of OTC drug abuse and addiction.

Get Help for Over the Counter Drug Addiction

Addiction to over-the-counter drugs can have a significant impact on your life and body, and OTC addiction should be taken just as seriously as other abused substances.

If you or someone you love needs to speak with someone about their over-the-counter medicine use, please give us a call and we will help you find the services you need.


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