Illegal drugs like heroin or cocaine are very addictive and often lead to abuse. But do you also know that over-the-counter (OTC) drugs and prescription medications are addictive when taken at higher doses?
In the U.S. prescription painkillers are second on the list of the most abused drugs (after marijuana). Abuse of prescription painkillers causes more deaths than guns and traffic accidents combined. Many people who suffer opioid painkiller addiction graduate to heroin abuse later.
What Are Over-the-Counter (OTC) Medicines?
OTC drugs are medicines that people can buy at pharmacy stores without prescriptions. They contain active ingredients which can cause addiction when taken in higher doses.
How Are OTC Medicines Abused?
Both unintentional and intentional abuse of OTC medicines occurs in households. At Stonegate, our desire is to educate and help everybody. Those who abuse OTC drugs as a deliberate act need to stop and those who do so unawares should become informed.
People abuse OTC drugs when they take them in the following ways:
- By taking them at higher doses than recommended by doctors and usually on the package.
- Taking them for the fun of it and to get high instead of taking them for specific treatments.
- Combining two or more different OTC medications together to create new compounds.
Who Is More Likely To Use or Abuse OTC Medications?
According to research most of the people who abuse over-the-counter medicines tend to be:
- Caucasian and female, although this may vary somewhat by age and the particular drug of abuse,
- Prone to mixing the medicines with alcohol, and
- Are drawn to OTC medications because they don’t have access to prescription / illicit drugs.
Five of the Most Abused Over-the-Counter (OTC) Drugs
People often assume that OTC drugs are safe because anyone can buy them at pharmacy stores. The following list includes five of the most common OTC drugs that people misuse or abuse:
Dextromethorphan (DXM) is the active component contained in OTC cough syrups, eg. Nyquil and Robitussin. Teenagers love to abuse it because it is legal and is often taken in higher doses with alcohol and ecstasy (MDMA). It is cheap and easy to get high on, it is common in the house, and they can buy it at the local pharmacy.
DXM causes hallucinations, impaired judgment, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and seizures at higher doses.
Diet pills and asthma medications like Bronkaid and Primatene contain the ephedrine. When taken in abnormal quantities, ephedrine is harmful to cardiovascular health and others.
Doctors prescribed ephedrine as an effective central nervous system stimulant up till 2004. The FDA banned it after that.
Despite this, several athletes continue to enhance their performance with ephedrine. A growing number of youths in clubs and raves across the country also take it in the absence of ecstasy.
Ephedrine abuse causes psychosis, stroke, memory loss, heart attack, seizure, and stomach irritation. It can also lead to the development of kidney stones, tremors, nausea, dizziness, and to death.
3. Caffeine Pills
Caffeine is the most popular psychoactive drug consumed in the world. For example, it’s used as a central nervous system stimulant and enjoyed by millions of people in the U.S. alone. Some of the overabundance of caffeinated products include coffee, energy drinks and pills.
For the most part, caffeine is safe for consumption when taken in moderate amounts. Taking it in excessive doses to get high or to remain awake for long periods is the problem. Some of such practices have resulted in known cases of caffeine overdose and death.
Withdrawal symptoms and dependence are also observed in people treating caffeine addiction.
Some of the negative effects of caffeine overdose are:
- tachycardia (increased heartbeat),
- arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat),
- increased thirst,
- muscle twitching,
- dizziness, and
Laxatives are the most abused products by people who are looking for ways to lose weight. Some have gone on to develop eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia and they abuse the drugs for that. Yet, these drugs do not reduce or remove calories from the body, and their abuse causes health problems.
The stimulants in laxatives differ from those contained in other drugs (e.g. cocaine). This is because laxative stimulants cause increased muscular contractions in the gut. They also induce quick bowel movement for speedy expulsion of food from the body. The other stimulants affect the central nervous system instead.
Like caffeine pills, withdrawal symptoms occur in people treating laxative dependence and addiction. Examples of these include temporary weight gain and bloating.
Serious side effects of laxative abuse include mineral and electrolytes imbalance that cause:
- heart and kidney damage,
- severe dehydration with associated weakness and tremors,
- colon infection or cancer,
- bleeding resulting in anemia,
- irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), as well as
- laxative dependence (when the colon struggles to ‘work’ on its own and now requires the drugs to pass waste).
Doctors prescribe pseudoephedrine to help relieve allergies, hay fever, and common cold symptoms. It is thus the active ingredient contained in most medications for nasal decongestion.
Pseudoephedrine pills are no longer as easy to buy off-the shelf in pharmacy stores as before. They became regulated by the FDA because folks found ways to use the pills to produce or synthesize “meth.”
Sometimes, people cannot access large quantities enough to produce the meth, so they abuse and get high off the product itself. Some of the severe injuries that can result from pseudoephedrine abuse include:
- irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia),
- breathing problems,
- stomach pains,
- vomiting, and
- general weakness, etc.
Dangers of Combination Formulations
Analgesic products are some of the most of the highest bought OTC medications. This is why most of the health hazards associated with OTC drug abuse involve these drugs. Unfortunately, the consequences are often made worse when people combine these different analgesics.
Acetaminophen is one of the most common active ingredients in drugs you can buy at your local drug store. Some of these include
- flu medications,
- cold medications,
- analgesics like Tylenol, and
- opioid painkillers like Vicodin and Percocet.
Taking acetaminophen at higher doses causes acute liver failure.
Many people mix or combine these medications being completely unaware of the main ingredients of these OTC drugs. For instance, an individual is unaware that Percocet and Tylenol contain acetaminophen, and then goes ahead to combine the two. This is still drug abuse with a high risk of acetaminophen overdose.
Acetaminophen overdose causes
- stomach pain,
- excessive sweating,
- metabolic acidosis,
- liver failure,
- jaundice (yellow skin and eyes),
- convulsion and, sometimes,
It is important to know that most of the OTC drugs people buy in pharmacy stores cause health problems when taken in high doses over time. Combining these drugs leads to even more serious health problems.
Tell your doctor about any medication you have been taking before he prescribes new drugs to you. Make sure you do not abuse any medicine whether prescribed or OTC because abuse can result in death.
You could experience severe health hazards by taking these OTC medications without prescription. The level of harm OTC drug abuse causes is much more severe when you combine two or more of these products.
John Eckelbarger is a Business Development Representative for Stonegate Center. With a BSA in Chemistry from the University of Texas at Austin, he has an interest in the neurobiology of addiction & pharmacology of drugs. He hopes to bolster Stonegate Center to the forefront of addiction medicine through bold, innovative content. He is currently pursuing his MBA in Finance from Texas Christian University.