You might think that over-the-counter (OTC) drugs wouldn’t be addictive since you can buy them at the store without a prescription. However, some OTC medicines can be quite addictive. If you’re using them as directed, they are typically safe. However, if you are abusing them, you can become addicted and suffer serious health issues, including death.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), OTC drugs are among some of the most abused substances in the U.S. Teenagers are among the mix, as it’s easier for them to get their hands on OTC medicines like laxatives, cough and cold medication, diet pills, and pain meds that contain acetaminophen.

Common OTC Medications That Are Abused

There are some OTC medicines that are abused more often than others, mainly due to the way the medicine makes them feel.

For example, someone could abuse cough medicine, taking more than directed, because they like the way it makes them feel very relaxed or a bit euphoric.

  • Common OTC medications that are abused include:
  • Cold medicines that include pseudoephedrine
  • Cough medicines that included dextromethorphan (DXM) (Including Nyquil and Robitussin)
  •  Motion sickness medicine that includes dimenhydrinate
  • Laxatives

Let’s take a closer look at these:

Dextromethorphan (DXM) – Cough Medicines

The active ingredient, dextromethorphan (DXM) in cough medicines is able to cause intoxication and hallucinations when abused. Typically, the recommended daily dose is 120mg of DXM. Anything beyond that is considered abusing the drug and can cause serious side effects.

  • For doses between 200 – 400 mg, you can experience intense euphoria and hallucinations.
  • For doses between 300 – 600 mg, you could lose your motor coordination and visual hallucinations.
  • For doses between 500 -1500 mg, you could become unconscious or have out-of-body sensations.

You can also experience:

  • Twitching muscles
  • Sleepiness
  • Blackouts
  • Slow breathing
  • Heart palpitations
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Blood pressure changes
  • Fever
  • Tachycardia
  • Brain damage

Pseudoephedrine – Cold Medicine

The active ingredient in cold medicines is pseudoephedrine, which helps those will allergies and sinus congestion. However, when this is abused or taken in high quantities, it can cause a euphoric feeling and hallucinations.  Actually, one ingredient necessary for making meth is pseudoephedrine, which is why you must buy this OTC cold medicine directly from a clerk behind the counter; not off the shelf.  You’ll have to present your ID and sign for it.

Pseudoephedrine abuse can lead to experiencing an increase in blood pressure, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, and seizures.

Dimenhydrinate – Motion Sickness Medicine

When dimenhydrinate is taken in large doses, it can cause serious side effects like hallucinations, seizures, heart palpitations, and perhaps even death. Some people abuse this drug because of its psychedelic effects, which can cause hallucinations and delirium when taken in large doses.


OTC laxatives may be addictive, especially for those that struggle with an eating disorder like bulimia or anorexia nervosa.  A laxative is a stimulant that causes the intestine muscles to contract, causing a bowel movement. The stimulant isn’t like what you’d find in drugs like cocaine, but it can become an addictive act for some people.

Using laxatives frequently can result in various issues, such as:

  • Dehydration that can lead to damage in the kidneys
  • Fatigue
  • Mineral and electrolyte loss
  • Heart issues
  •  Problems with the colon
  • Laxative dependency
  • Tremors

OTC Addiction

Because of the addictive potential of OTC drugs, you should be aware of the signs of addiction.  Whether you’re abusing the drugs moderately or severely, there are risks.  And, as with many drugs, the more you use the drug, the more your body will need to reach the same effect. This increases your tolerance, and this can be dangerous.

The following are some signs of OTC drug addiction:

  • Using more of the drug than recommended
  • Lying about how much you use
  • Hiding your medicine from others
  • Suffering negative consequences, but continuing to use the drug
  • Stealing the medicine
  • Buying the medicine in bulk for fear that you’ll run out

OTC Addiction Withdrawal

Once you’re addicted to a drug, even OTC drugs, you are likely to experience withdrawal symptoms when you stop taking it. These symptoms may be mild, moderate, or severe, depending on the type of drug, how long you’ve been using it, and the dosage.

Typical withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Nausea
  • Agitation
  • Confusion
  • Mood changes
  • Cravings
  • Anxiety

Acetaminophen Dangers

There are OTC drugs which contain acetaminophen, such as Tylenol and Benadryl. Acetaminophen is helpful when taken as prescribed, but if it’s abused or taken in excess, it can cause liver failure. Some cold and flu medications contain acetaminophen, so it’s essential to take these as directed. Also, some prescription opioids include acetaminophen as an ingredient, like Vicodin or Percocet. Those that aren’t aware of this might take their prescription pain pill, plus Tylenol, not realizing that they’re in danger of an acetaminophen overdose.

Signs of acetaminophen overdose include:

  • Stomach ache
  • Appetite loss
  • Convulsions
  • Jaundice
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Sweating
  • Coma

OTC Drugs And Alcohol

You should not mix some OTC drugs with alcohol, as this can cause life-threatening results. Acetaminophen is especially harmful when mixed with alcohol, and can cause liver damage.

“Cough syrup and alcohol can also cause harm, as both are depressants, causing the central nervous system to slow the breath down, which can increase the risk of overdose. ”

Are You Addicted To OTC Drugs?

You might not be able to spot an OTC addiction like you would if you were dealing with drugs like cocaine or heroin. In fact, many people aren’t even aware that you can become addicted to OTC drugs like Sudafed or Tylenol.

Do you see yourself in some of the signs of addiction?  If so, know that you’re not alone, and you don’t have to stay addicted to the medicine. If you find that you can’t quit using on your own, there are substance abuse professionals ready and willing to assist you in kicking that habit. You have various options when it comes to becoming free from OTC addiction.

Residential Treatment Center

For those who have a severe OTC addiction, it might be helpful to attend a residential treatment center.  This gives you the opportunity to leave your home and reside at the center for the duration of your treatment. You’ll have access to addiction specialists 24/7, and have a great support network while going through the detox process.  This is a helpful option for those that are prone to relapse or need firm, extra support in recovery.

Outpatient Treatment Center

If you cannot attend a residential treatment center, you can attend an outpatient center. There you’ll be able to reside at home and commute to recovery sessions during the week. This is a great option for those who have family or work responsibilities.

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