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Over-the-Counter Drug Abuse

Though legal, over-the-counter drugs can be dangerous when misused.

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Caron Treatment Centers accepts patients aged 13 years or older. For more information on services available to those 12 and under, please learn more about Caron's Student Assistance Program.
What are over the counter drugs?

Over-the-counter (OTC) drugs are medicines sold directly to consumers without prescriptions from healthcare professionals. They are readily available at grocery, convenience and drug stores.

Contrary to popular belief, over-the-counter drugs are not harmless. Some are addictive and potentially dangerous, especially when abused, or not taken as directed. Over-the-counter drug abuse is most common among children and teens.

Over-the-Counter Drug Abuse

Types of abused OTC drugs.

The most commonly abused over-the-counter drugs contain the ingredient DXM (dextromethorphan), which is used to treat symptoms of the common cold and flu. When abused, DXM produces euphoria. 

Short-term effects of DXM abuse are:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • impaired judgment
  • distortion of visual perception
  • loss of coordination
  • headache
  • numbness of extremities
  • irregular heartbeat
  • increased blood pressure
  • aches
  • panic attacks
  • cold or hot flashes
  • diarrhea
  • dizziness
  • seizures
  • hallucinations
  • psychosis

Long-term DXM abuse can cause: 

  • restlessness
  • insomnia
  • coma
  • addiction
  • death, in certain cases

Over-the-counter drug abuse also occurs with weight loss medications, like laxatives, diuretics, emetics (drugs that produce vomiting) and diet pills. While many use them to lose weight, dangerous and addictive ingredients—such as ephedrine, caffeine and phenylpropranolamine—can eventually lead to dependence and addiction. Even herbal diet pills, which are considered natural, are dangerous. All weight loss products, even over-the-counter weight loss drugs, have stimulant effects on the central nervous system. 

Side effects of over-the-counter weight-loss drug abuse include:

  • hair loss
  • insomnia
  • disruption of menses in females
  • urinary tract infections
  • anxiety
  • diarrhea
  • vomiting
  • blurred vision

Other frequently abused over-the-counter drugs include pain relievers (often taken in excess when initial dosage is ineffective); motion sickness pills (which cause hallucinations when taken in extremely high doses); and sexual performance enhancers (to counteract the effects of alcohol on sexual performance).

Risks associated with over-the-counter drug abuse.

It is very unsafe to abuse over-the-counter drugs, or take them in quantities or for purposes other than those indicated. Doing so could cause overdose and death, dangerous drug interactions, and/or worsen medical problems. Not to mention, abusing over-the-counter drugs can lead to severe legal and professional consequences, including arrests for inappropriate behavior, loss of drivers license and loss of job. For these reasons, it is important to check with medical professionals before taking over-the-counter drugs.

Signs and symptoms of over-the-counter drug abuse.

Parents and family members should be on the lookout for the warning signs of over-the-counter drug abuse. They include: 

  • missing medications
  • negative performance at school or work
  • changes in hobbies and interests
  • visits to Internet sites that contain information on how to abuse over-the-counter drugs to get high
  • disrupted sleeping patterns
  • changes in friends
  • bad track-record with relationships
  • changes in appearance and hygiene

If you suspect that someone you care for is struggling with over-the-counter drug abuse, there is hope. Immediate intervention and treatment will prevent long-term health consequences. Explore Caron’s treatment programs or contact us for more information.