Commonly Abused Over-The-Counter (OTC) Drugs | WRRC

Commonly Abused Over-The-Counter (OTC) Drugs

When most people think of drug addiction, they often jump straight to the concept of illegal drugs. In reality, however, several commonly-used products, including many available over-the-counter (OTC), are abused by many members of the population. Using those medications incorrectly, including taking more than the dose recommended by the packing, can pose a substantial danger for many users. 

OTC medications can be highly addictive and can be easily abused in some instances. People who are struggling with OTC drug abuse should talk to a medical professional to determine what type of treatment is necessary. Wellness Retreat Recovery can help people who are struggling with a substance use disorder achieve a happier and healthier lifestyle. 

What are Commonly Abused Over-the-Counter Drugs?

There are several medications available for common over-the-counter use that can be abused. These drugs do not require a prescription for users to get access. They are frequently sold in pharmacies, supermarkets, and even gas stations, making it easy for addicts to get their hands on them.

OTC drugs are often approved by the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Since they are seemingly commonplace substances, many may not be aware of their addictive properties. Many OTC drugs can be dangerous when they are used in excessive amounts. 

Here are some of the commonly abused OTC drugs:

Cough Syrup

Cough syrup is perhaps one of the most commonly-abused over-the-counter medications. Dextromethorphan, a common ingredient in many cough syrups, can cause side effects that some users choose to embrace for the associated high, including feelings of disassociation, excitement, or hallucinations. Using more than the recommended amount can increase those effects. 

Because it is so easy to get hold of, many teens seek it out for a cheap, easy high. Unfortunately, it can cause several devastating side effects, including high blood pressure, slowed speech, and impaired judgment. People who abuse DXM may also have an increased risk of panic attacks or paranoia. 


is found in several over-the-counter cough medicines and several common pain relievers. It can create an immediate high, including a feeling of separation from the body or feelings of relief. 

Because codeine is an opiate, it causes some of the same dangers as other opiates, including slowed or shallow breathing, drowsiness, dizziness, or light-headedness. Codeine is also highly addictive when used regularly. Patients who take heavy quantities of codeine may have trouble with detoxification symptoms when they discontinue use. 

Sleep Aids

Many sleep aids not only help patients get the sleep they need, but they can also create a distinct high, especially in users who fight off those effects and try to stay awake. In some cases, over-the-counter sleep aids can lead to hallucinations in patients who cannot get the sleep they need following a dose. 

Furthermore, long-term sleep aid use may increase the risk of developing dementia if taken for a long period. Sleep aids are not intended for long-term use, but rather as a short-term aid to help patients get to sleep. Unfortunately, they can create a self-compounding cycle: patients need to use a sleep aid to get to sleep, and when they discontinue use, they notice an immediate rebound. In some cases, that rebound effect can lead to continuing sleep aid abuse. 

Anti-Diarrheal Drugs

Most patients who reach for anti-diarrheal drugs do it to clear up stomach upset. However, regular use of anti-diarrheal drugs, including loperamide, can create several potential symptoms. It acts as an opioid in the body, creating some of the same effects as more potent drugs. 

As a result, some patients who are looking for a cheap and easy high may choose to use loperamide to mimic the symptoms of other types of opioid use. Some patients may also try to use loperamide during withdrawal from other, stronger opiates. However, it can create several potentially damaging concerns, including increased constipation. 

Allergy Medications and Decongestants

Most people who have used allergy or cold medicine to deal with the symptoms of a cold or exposure to pollen and other allergens are familiar with the “floating” feeling that can accompany the use of those products. However, substances like diphenhydramine can also create a high in users, particularly when abused. 

At those higher quantities, diphenhydramine can also cause hallucinations. However, abuse of that substance can result in heart issues, seizures, and other devastating symptoms, including an increased risk of death. 

Pseudoephedrine is also a decongestant, frequently used to deal with allergy or cold-related problems. The FDA does heavily regulate products containing pseudoephedrine, including requiring users to show ID before making a purchase; however, some teens may still abuse this substance, including getting together with others to buy more than the allowed monthly amount. 

Can OTC Medicine be Dangerous?

Most of the time, over-the-counter medication is sold that way because, when used as directed, it does not produce any damaging side effects in the user. However, when misused, OTC medications can have several potentially devastating side effects. Misuse can include taking more than the recommended dosage at once, taking the medication for too long, or combining it with other medications that may magnify its effects. 

Health problems may include:

  • Organ damage or impaired organ function
  • Increased risk of heart problems
  • Memory loss
  • Death
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Damage to the central nervous system or brain damage

Over-the-counter medication can also have significant side effects when combined with other medications or drugs, including prescription medications, alcohol, and street drugs. 

Examples of Dangerous OTC Medication

Several OTC medications can have dangerous side effects. 

  • Epsom salts. Overuse can cause devastating side effects, including heart problems, coma, paralysis, or death. 
  • Common pain medications, including Midol, Tylenol, and Advil. Overuse of acetaminophen-containing products, for example, can increase the risk of liver damage. 
  • Dextromethorphan, often abbreviated DXM, is found in common cough medications. It may cause hallucinations, depression, and addiction. 
  • Loperamide, often found in anti-diarrheal medication, can activate opioid receptors in the brain and create similar effects to traditional opioids. 

Overuse or abuse of over-the-counter medications can cause long-term health effects, including everything from chronic constipation to an increased risk of stroke, heart failure, or death. 

Learn More About Commonly Abused OTC Medication With Wellness Retreat Recovery

At Wellness Retreat Recovery, we address a variety of types of addiction, including addiction to OTC medications. Often, patients abuse OTC medication because they believe that it will have less of an overall effect. However, in many cases, that abuse can lead to considerable symptoms, including increased addiction and withdrawal symptoms when discontinued. 

Our team can help patients deal with potential withdrawal symptoms, address the underlying causes of addiction, and ultimately successfully move through the recovery process. We offer a range of addiction treatment options that help support people on the road to early recovery. 

Contact us today to learn more about the support and services we can provide.