Over-the-counter (OTC) drugs are legal drugs that you can acquire without a prescription. They are sold in pharmacies, grocery stores, and even gas stations. Chances are that you use these drugs all the time to treat your colds and headaches. When people use these drugs according to the directions, the drugs pose little to no risk. However, the problem occurs when OTC drugs are used in large doses, especially to achieve some sort of “high.”

At Fort Behavioral Health, our drug addiction treatment program can equip people with the tools that they need to live a lifestyle free from over-the-counter drug abuse.

What Are Over-the-Counter Drugs?

There is a misconception that because OTC drugs are more readily available than illegal drugs and prescription drugs, they are safer. While OTC drugs are safe when used responsibly, hundreds of OTC drugs contain psychoactive chemicals that people may try to maximize for recreational use. Partly because of their social acceptance and partly because of their widespread availability, OTC drugs can seem like an easy and relatively safe option.

While dangerous in and of itself, OTC drug abuse is hazardous, considering it is disproportionately prevalent among younger people. Substance abuse problems in adulthood are almost always preceded by drug use in adolescence and young adulthood. OTC drug abuse, then, sets young people up for substance use issues down the road.

Types of Over-the-Counter Drugs

The most common types of OTC medications that can easily be abused include:

Cough & Cold Medications

Cough and cold medications containing antitussive (a type of cough suppressant) dextromethorphan are the most commonly abused and a particularly dangerous kind of OTC medication.

Often referred to as “DXM” (shorthand for “dextromethorphan”), this ingredient is used to treat cold and flu symptoms as well as allergies. Taken in large amounts at frequent intervals, DXM, a dissociative anesthetic like PCP and ketamine, produces psychoactive and even psychedelic effects in its users. While its effects vary depending on the dose, some common effects of DXM abuse include:

  • Hot flashes and sweating
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Dizziness or lack of coordination
  • Paranoia or panic attacks
  • Lethargy
  • Slurred speech

More serious consequences of DXM include liver damage, brain damage, and emotional/psychological issues.


Another commonly abused type of OTC medication is stimulants. These include diet pills, energy drinks, caffeine pills, decongestants, and even some herbal remedies.

Diet medications, including appetite suppressants, mild stimulants, and their herbal counterparts, are particularly prone to abuse.

Abusing OTC diet medications come with many risks, such as:

  • Increased chance of stroke or heart attack
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Liver and kidney damage
  • Dehydration
  • Hallucinations or delusions
  • Depression and anxiety

Decongestants often include stimulants such as phenylpropanolamine, pseudoephedrine, and methylephedrine. These stimulants have been linked to cardiovascular issues, hallucinations, and seizures and are often used to produce methamphetamine, otherwise known as crystal meth.

Pain Relievers

OTC pain reliever misuse is tricky to detect because it happens as a way to control pain. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory pain medications are the most dangerous kind. Ones containing acetaminophen, for example, can lead to liver damage, kidney damage, and cardiovascular complications.

Motion Sickness Medications

OTC motion sickness medications often contain diphenhydramine and dimenhydrinate. You may know these drugs, such as Benadryl and Dramamine, respectively. While symptoms of motion sickness medication abuse vary significantly depending on body weight and metabolism, some serious risks include heart attack, seizures, and coma.

Chronic abuse can result in organ damage to the liver or kidneys, cognitive issues, such as problems with memory and learning, and psychological symptoms, like depression.

Overcome Over-the-Counter Drug Abuse with Treatment at Fort Behavioral Health

Because many of those who abuse OTC drugs are younger, early drug education is critical. There are also research-based approaches to helping adolescents with substance issues. The damage is reversible, especially with early intervention and proper treatment.

Whatever your age, there is plenty of help out there for OTC drug abuse, including treatment centers, therapists, and support groups. Call Fort Behavioral Health at 844.332.1807 today.


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