Abuse of Over-the-Counter Drugs

At one point, people had to go to the doctor in order to get medications to help with illness or discomfort. Now, a remarkable amount of medication is available in the aisles of grocery stores, pharmacies and even roadside gas stations. In fact, the Consumer Healthcare Products Association suggests that there are more than 100,000 over-the-counter medications available today, and they include more than 1,000 active ingredients.

Having active medications available over the counter may be convenient, but it might also be intensely dangerous, as these drugs can be responsible for addictions. It might be difficult to discuss an addiction like this with someone who is abusing these drugs, but that conversation could be vital to the long-term healing of someone in need.

What Drugs Cause Concern?

While people could abuse almost anything that’s sold over the counter, experts suggest that only a handful of medications are associated with serious cases of abuse and addiction. Typically, these are drugs that bring about some sort of altered state, either through the active ingredient in the medication or through the enhanced ingredients included in those medications.Cough and cold medications, for example, often include alcohol. Just as a person might get a buzz from sipping on wine, a person could become impaired after downing a bottle of this syrup. In addition, some cough and cold medications include dextromethorphan, which is included in order to break up a cough, but the ingredient is powerful, and it can make users feel sleepy and euphoric.

Antihistamines are also used to break up congestion and make breathing easier, but some pills contain an element that’s quite similar to amphetamine. In fact, Sudafed pills are considered vital to people who want to make methamphetamine. People who want to get high might utilize this knowledge and down these pills on a recreational basis.Anti-nausea medications like Dramamine can also be tempting substances to abuse, as they can make users feel either sleepy or hyperactive, depending on their individual chemistry. Not all anti-nausea medications contain these active ingredients, but those that do can be quite tempting for people hoping for a quick and powerful high.

Why Choose to Abuse?

The power of over-the-counter drugs might drive some people to recreational use, as the substances just seem to make people feel a little better for a short period of time, but people who abuse these substances regularly may have other reasons for their addictive habits. For example, in a study in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, researchers found that people abused these drugs because:

  • They were addicted to other substances, and when those drugs weren’t available, OTC meds provided a quick substitution.
  • They wanted to kick up the power of the drugs they were already using.
  • They wanted to use drugs and still pass a drug test.
  • They had a legitimate health problem the drugs helped with.
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As this study clearly demonstrates, people might abuse these drugs for all sorts of reasons that they might be quick to defend. In some cases, they’re using these drugs to help them cope with another addiction, and they think the OTC drugs are harmless in comparison. In other cases, they’re using these drugs because they have another health issue, and they’re only occasionally abusing the drugs. It’s hard to make sweeping judgments about this addiction when the reasons for the abuse are so very diverse.

People who abuse OTC medications might also be under the mistaken impression that the drugs are somehow harmless and benign. They can get them from the store, not from a dealer, and they don’t have to pay very much for the drug. This can lead people to believe that the drug really doesn’t have much long-term impact, and that abusing it isn’t such a bad idea.

In addition, a study from BMJ suggests that people who abuse these drugs don’t think of themselves as true addicts, since they’re not buying a substance off the street and they’re not putting the financial health of the family in jeopardy as a result. These users might frown upon illicit drug use or think of that activity as bad, wrong or illegal. But drugs that come from a store just don’t seem that harmful to these users, and as a result, they may not be tempted to amend their habits in any way.

How to Help

Since people who abuse OTC medications don’t think of the substances as harmful, the first step to recovery involves blasting away the myth and getting to the truth. This means pointing out all of the symptoms of abuse a family has seen, which might include:

  • Slurred words
  • Staggering
  • Falling
  • Hyperactivity
  • Depression
  • Work absences
  • Social withdrawal
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None of these symptoms can really be considered healthy when they’re outlined in such a straightforward fashion, and that might help the person to understand that the addiction is problematic and that something really does need to change.

Similarly, a family might point out how much of a specific drug the person has been taking. They could collect used wrappers, empty bottles and crushed boxes, and bring all of that evidence to the talk. By pointing out how much the person is taking and how much manufacturers say users should consume, they could drive home the point that addiction is causing the behavior and that something needs to change.

A family might also consider using simple expressions of affection to bring about change. People who abuse these drugs might be moved by a reminder that their families love them and want them to change, and these simple words of love might be enough to help them get motivated to do something different with life.

In some cases, a simple chat can be enough to help people make big changes. But sometimes, people who abuse these drugs need more than a quick talk in order to see the need for change. People like this might need the help that only comes with a formal addiction intervention. Here, the tone is sober and serious, and the family practices the statements they’ll make in advance, so the full reality of the problem becomes clear and the addiction is a little easier for the person to comprehend. In some cases, that’s enough to help people struggling with addiction to really see the need for change.


If you’d like to hold a talk like this, please contact us. We can connect you with professionals who are ready and willing to talk with you about the addiction impacting your family, and with their help, you can pull together a talk that inspires, supports and motivates.

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