The Dangers of Over-the-Counter Drugs
Over-the-counter (OTC) medications don’t require a prescription for purchase. You can buy them at most pharmacies, big box stores, grocery stores, and convenience stores.
There are rarely restrictions on these medications, making them a quick, easy treatment option for various conditions.
There are some over-the-counter medications that have the potential for abuse or even addiction. Some OTC drugs have negative side effects, too.
Mind-Altering Over-The-Counter Drugs Can Lead to Abuse
Many consumers mistakenly believe that OTC drugs contain non-addictive ingredients. While that’s sometimes true, the truth is that a medication isn’t necessarily safe in large doses just because it’s easy to buy.
Some common OTC drugs contain mind-altering substances. Though you may not notice the effect with a standard dose, people who struggle with mind-altering substance addiction may be tempted to take much larger doses.
This can lead to hallucinations, euphoria, and other mental effects. Over time, it may lead to substance abuse or addiction.
Usually used as a cough suppressant, dextromethorphan has potential side effects. This medication may cause mental effects such as euphoria when taken in large doses.
In fact, DXM works much like more popular hallucinogenic drugs such as PCP or ketamine.
People who regularly take DXM may become dependent. If they continue taking the drug, they may form an addiction.
Side Effects of OTC Drugs
A side effect may be any undesirable symptom you experience when you use a medication. For example, if you take a pain reliever, relieving pain is the medication’s intended effect. Some pain relievers may also cause nausea, however, which is a side effect.
Every drug has potential side effects. That includes over-the-counter medicine. Some side effects are mild; you may not even notice them. Other side effects are more severe. The most concerning side effects are life-threatening and possibly fatal.
Side effects may be short-term or long-term. Most drugs have both.
Dependence and Abuse of OTC Drugs
Drug dependence and abuse are common terms used to describe the misuse of medications. In the past, drug abuse referred to a lower level of misuse, such as taking more medication than prescribed or taking additional doses.
Drug dependence once referred to the inability to lead a normal life without taking medication. Dependence was considered more severe than abuse.
However, you may become dependent on a substance without abusing it. Dependence really just means that your body has adjusted to the drug and needs it to function normally.
Drug dependence causes issues like high blood pressure or heart palpitations if you stop taking the drug. If you’re dependent on a drug, you may experience withdrawal. You may also need larger doses of the drugs to experience the intended effects.
OTC Drug Addiction
Drug addiction is not the same as drug dependence or abuse, though some people use the terms interchangeably. You may be addicted to a drug without being physically dependent—and vice versa.
Addiction refers to behavioral changes as a result of drug use. For example, you may know the consequences of taking a drug but choose to take it anyway.
You may feel like you’re unable to stop taking a medication even if you want to. You may notice your social life, job, or school work are affected by your drug use. These are all signs of addiction.
Today, drug abuse, dependence, and addiction are called “substance use disorders.” Because most people are more familiar with the terms “dependence,” “addiction,” and “abuse,” we will use all four terms throughout this guide.
Acetaminophen (aka Tylenol) is a popular OTC painkiller. You can buy acetaminophen nearly anywhere and dosages vary.
While acetaminophen typically works well for pain relief and fever reduction, it also has some short-term side effects.
- Stomach cramps
- Rash or peeling skin
Of course, not everyone will experience these side effects when they take acetaminophen, but some people will. In fact, some people experience more severe side effects from acetaminophen.
It can even be fatal. Recurrent, excessive, or long-term use is more likely to cause these problems, which include liver failure and difficulty breathing.
Laxatives are another common type of OTC medication that have potentially serious side effects. Some people use laxatives long-term or take more than intended as a weight loss pill.
This is extremely dangerous and may cause irreversible damage to the bowels, liver, and colon.
The most common long-term side effects of laxative abuse include:
- Severe dehydration
- Physical dependency
- Organ damage
- IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome)
- Liver damage or failure
- A higher risk of colon cancer
Are you misusing OTC medications? We can help.
If you’re concerned that you may be misusing or abusing OTC medications, Zinnia Health can help. OTC substance use disorder is a common problem that affects more people than you may realize. Give us a call at (855) 430-9439 to discuss your options for recovery.
Mixing Over-the-Counter Medications With Other Substances
OTC risks aren’t always tied to substance abuse. If you take more than one medication at a time, you may create more serious issues, including potentially fatal effects.
The risks from combining substances aren’t always intentional. It is all too easy to take one medication and then forget and take another medication a few hours later. Sometimes, the combination is intentional.
Assume you have a headache. You take naproxen, which is a common non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) used for pain relief and marketed under the brand name Aleve.
However, your headache still persists an hour or two later. You decide to take ibuprofen (e.g. Advil or Motrin), too. However, these two medications are very similar and in the same class of drugs. You’re not supposed to take a full dose of both medications together.
You have (possibly inadvertently) abused your medication, and there are potential risks involved.
Both medications may interact with other medicines, as well. These include diuretics, aspirin, blood thinners, lithium, and certain blood pressure medications. Naproxen may also interact with antacids, SSRIs, and SNRIs.
Alcohol and Medication Interactions
While potential drug interactions are too numerous to list for all OTC medications, there’s one substance that’s worth mentioning: alcohol.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism advises that mixing medications (both OTC and prescription) with alcohol can intensify side effects or create new risks.
Older people are at a higher risk for these side effects, though anyone may be affected. That’s because your body can’t metabolize alcohol as well at 60 (for example) as it can at 25. As you age, alcohol stays in your body longer.
Of course, older people are also more likely to take daily medication, which makes this issue a bigger concern. Senior citizens are only 13% of the population, yet they use 30% of all OTC drugs.
Though we can’t list all the potential risks involved when combining alcohol and OTC drugs, here are some of the side effects when you mix alcohol with common medications:
- Allergy medicine (e.g., Benadryl): drowsiness, dizziness, higher potential for overdose
- Cough medicine (e.g., Robitussin, Mucinex): drowsiness, dizziness, higher potential for overdose
- Motion sickness medication (e.g., Dramamine): drowsiness, dizziness, higher potential for overdose
- Sleep remedies (e.g., Unisom): excessive drowsiness
- Pain relievers (e.g., Tylenol): stomach bleeding, ulcers, liver damage, and increased heart rate
- Heartburn remedies (e.g., Pepcid): high or low blood pressure, increased heart rate, increased effects of alcohol
Of course, death is the biggest risk when you combine alcohol with any substance. That’s true with OTC medications and alcohol as well.
Many common OTC medications were once available only via prescription. Nearly all substances (prescription, OTC, and illegal) are more accessible now than they were in the past.
As a result, the potential for overdose (including fatal overdose) is higher than ever because of the high risks involved with combining substances.
If you struggle with OTC drug dependence or find yourself combining substances to achieve more potent effects, please seek immediate assistance. Call Zinnia Health at (855) 430-9439 to discuss your options now.
Taking OTC Medications During Pregnancy or While Breastfeeding
Pregnant or breastfeeding women are particularly vulnerable to the risks of OTC drugs. Their unborn children are also susceptible to the side effects (including fatal side effects) of these medications.
Please remember that many over-the-counter drugs aren’t safe during pregnancy or while breastfeeding. Before you take a dose of any medicine, ask your doctor or medical provider whether it’s approved during pregnancy.
In addition, some OTC medications are safe to take during one trimester of pregnancy (e.g., the first few months) but not safe during another trimester (e.g., closer to delivery).
If you take certain medications during pregnancy, you may cause unnecessary risks for yourself or the developing fetus. If you take certain medications while breastfeeding, you may unknowingly pass the medication to your infant, which can be harmful.
While you should always ask your doctor for medical advice, here is a shortlist of medications you should avoid throughout pregnancy:
- Aspirin (e.g., Bayer)
- Bismuth subsalicylate (e.g., Pepto Bismol)
- Ibuprofen (e.g., Advil, Motrin)
- Naproxen (e.g., Aleve)
- Phenylephrine (a nasal decongestant used in many OTC cold remedies)
- Pseudoephedrine (e.g., Sudafed)
Recovering From Over-the-Counter Drug Dependency
As you read through this guide, you may have realized that you take more over-the-counter medications than you should. You may already suspect you have a dependency on one or more OTC drugs.
If this sounds familiar, please seek help now.
While over-the-counter drugs are generally less concerning than prescription drugs for dependency, addiction, or abuse, the potential risks are still present. Perhaps more importantly, OTC drug abuse often leads to the abuse of stronger substances.
As your body adjusts to an over-the-counter medication, you may feel fewer or less potent effects from the drug. This creates a need for stronger substances to achieve the same effect.
Many people become addicted to prescription or street drugs because they first developed a dependence on OTC medications.
Whether you are simply taking too much medication or you are struggling with severe addiction, help is available. Zinnia Health has helped many patients recover from alcohol and substance abuse. We can help you, too.