Over-the-Counter Drugs: Addiction, Abuse, and its Treatment

Over-the-counter (OTC) drugs have been shown to produce psychoactive effects that can lead to abuse and eventually addiction. In many instances, it has also been shown that these kinds of drugs are often made as the stepping stone for the use and abuse of more sophisticated recreational and illicit, albeit more dangerous, substances in the drug world.

A Look at OTC Drugs

Medications that do not require written orders or prescriptions from doctors are called over-the-counter (OTC) drugs. These medications can be readily bought from a local drugstore, pharmacy, convenience store, or even supermarkets. These medications are generally considered to be safe but only if used according to their recommended use. However, like any other substance, these medications can also be abused. While their psychoactive potential can be considered low, they can nevertheless become addictive to susceptible individuals. Some of the well-documented health problems associated with OTC drug abuse include memory loss, heart problems, kidney problems, and even death.

Although not all OTC drugs have the potential to be addicting, the following drugs have been shown to possess the highest levels of abuse potential.

  • Cough medications that contain dextromethorphan hydrobromide
  • Cold medications that contain ephedrine and pseudoephedrine
  • Anti-emetics and anti-vertigo medications or drugs used in the management of motion sickness and which contain dimenhydrinate and related substances
  • Pain relievers especially acetaminophen or paracetamol

Effects of OTC Drug Abuse

The main issue with OTC drugs is that they are often used to self-medicate. This means individuals can readily take them anyhow they wish. In many cases, people may already be taking more than the actual recommended safe dosage which can lead to problems with overdose. In certain instances where the OTC drug is known to produce a particular effect that people need, such as euphoria or a sense of wellbeing, they tend to use the drug even though there is no clinical evidence of a need. For instance, if they take dextromethorphan-containing cough syrups despite the fact that they don’t have cough, then it can be said that the person is abusing the drug.

Here are some of the most commonly abused OTC drugs and their effects.

  • Dextromethorphan – May cause hallucinations and euphoria when abused. Excessively high doses of dextromethorphan can lead to vomiting, jitteriness, blurred vision, rapid heart rate, and, in severe cases, brain damage.
  • Pseudoephedrine – A known stimulant, pseudoephedrine is primarily abused for its euphoric effects and, to some extent, hallucinogenic properties. Because it is a stimulant, it can cause highly irregular heartbeats, dizziness, unusually high blood pressure, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, and even seizures.
  • Dimenhydrinate – This is often found in anti-emetic preparations as well as in drugs used in the management of vertigo and motion sickness. People abuse dimenhydrinate for its excellent psychedelic capabilities. Dimenhydrinate overdose can lead to hallucinations, arrhythmias or irregular heartbeats, nausea and vomiting, seizures, ringing in the ears or tinnitus, coma, and eventually death.
  • Acetaminophen – Also known as paracetamol, acetaminophen is supposed to be a very effective and very safe non-aspirin painkiller. It does not have psychoactive properties and as such, the risk of addiction is nil. However, acetaminophen abuse can still lead to devastating consequences such as diarrhea, stomach aches, excessive sweating, nausea, and, in chronically high dose use, irreversible liver damage.

Addiction to OTC Drugs

It is true that the addicting potential of OTC drugs are not as high as those found in other substances such as illicit drugs and prescription painkillers and benzodiazepines. However, among highly susceptible individuals, addiction is a very real concern. This is especially true when these drugs are used recreationally or are used not for their primary therapeutic benefits. Over time, the brain’s chemistry can be altered by these drugs which can then lead to tolerance. When this happens, the individual will be forced to take more of the OTC drug either by increasing the dosage or by increasing the frequency of use. It is also possible that individuals who have already developed tolerance to these drugs can also experience a variety of withdrawal symptoms in the event they stop taking the OTC medication.

Some of the more common withdrawal symptoms associated with OTC drugs include the following.

  • Anxiety
  • Confusion
  • Mood changes
  • Hostility or aggression

Identifying someone who is addicted to OTC drugs is not easy. This is because many don’t actually consider these drugs as addicting. As such, even if the person is already showing withdrawal symptoms, their loved ones often look for other possible explanations for the observed symptoms.

The only way one can identify if someone is addicted to a particular OTC drug is when that person keeps on using or taking the drug despite the absence of a clinical need for it. For example, taking cough medications even though the person clearly doesn’t have cough. Another possible sign of OTC drug addiction is the increasing preoccupation of the person in obtaining these drugs to the point that he spends unusually large sums of money in its purchase.

Getting the Right OTC Drug Abuse and Addiction Treatment

Almost everyone consider OTC drugs as safe and don’t pose a threat to one’s health and state of mind. Unfortunately, the FDA reported that 1 of 25 12th graders have abused cough medicines in the past. Additionally, more than 3.1 million people between the ages of 12 and 25 have used OTC cough and cold medicines for the purpose of getting high.

Such statistics underscore the need for a comprehensive approach to the treatment of OTC drug abuse and addiction. Treatments can include group therapies, cognitive behavioral therapies, mental wellness education, individual counseling, and experiential therapies as well as other evidence-based treatment programs that are designed to help the individual regain control of his life. Both inclient and outclient programs can provide the individual with unique and highly individualized addiction treatment programs that are designed primarily to address their OTC drug abuse issues.

While OTC drugs are generally safe, misusing them can still lead to abuse. Over time, if this is not rectified, it can lead to addiction. To help recover from OTC drug abuse and addiction, professional help is required.

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