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Over-the-Counter Drug Abuse

Over-the-counter drugs like ibuprofen and cough medicine have a permanent home in most family medicine cabinets. Despite their easy accessibility and legality, these drugs can be abused and cause serious health consequences, addiction, and even death.

Teen holding a blister pack of OTC pills.

Dangerous Effects of OTC Drug Abuse

Over-the-counter (OTC) drugs can be purchased cheaply without a doctor’s prescription. Some non-prescription drugs are psychoactive (or mind-altering), which makes them a tempting avenue of legal ways to get high. In fact, misuse of OTC drugs is most common among teens ages 13–16.

Most parents don’t think twice if their teenager keeps OTC pain relievers like ibuprofen or acetaminophen on their person or in their bedroom. Though you may believe that street drugs are more dangerous than the medicines you can get OTC, overdose can occur whether your child is doing drugs like cocaine and heroin, or engaging in non-prescription substance abuse.

For example, every year nearly 80,000 people visit the emergency room due to acetaminophen overuse, and as many as 980 people die from this OTC pain relief drug. Teenagers have died from DXM abuse, after overdosing on DXM-containing cough medicines.

Your child’s over-the-counter drug addiction should be taken just as seriously as a dependence upon alcohol or any other psychoactive substance. Accordingly, some level of professional treatment may be necessary.

Commonly Abused Over-the-Counter Drugs

In many cases, OTC drugs are gaining popularity among adolescents because of pervasive messaging on social media and in entertainment. As music and social feeds get saturated with mentions of over-the-counter drugs and drug combinations, the sheen of drug dangers has begun to wear off among impressionable young people.

Cough Medicine

Cough syrup being poured into a spoon.Over-the-counter drug abuse statistics show that one in 10 teenagers has abused OTC cough medicines to get high. The primary culprit is dextromethorphan or DXM, an ingredient in most cough medicines such as DayQuil and Robitussin. The drug’s effects mimic those of a psychedelic “trip,” and teens often refer to getting high on DXM as “robotripping.” Some of the risks of abusing dextromethorphan include vomiting, accelerated breathing, impaired judgment, memory loss and coma.

Cold Medicines

Cold medicines are among the most addictive over-the-counter drugs. In particular, teens may become dependent upon the nasal decongestant pseudoephedrine. Abuse of this drug can easily result in addiction, because of its similarity to amphetamines like Adderall and meth. Pseudoephedrine offers increased energy, but its side effects are severe and include an irregular heartbeat, heart palpitations, and heart attack. When used along with narcotic painkillers, pseudoephedrine can cause paranoid psychosis.

Pain Relievers

OTC pain relievers like Tylenol are the most commonly used medications around the world; perhaps that is why so many teens and parents have blind faith in their safety. Abusing acetaminophen in large doses can cause severe liver damage, especially if your child is drinking alcohol at the same time. Abusing ibuprofen can lead to cardiac problems, stomach bleeding, and kidney failure.

Diet Pills

Close-up of OTC pillsWeight loss supplements are often available over the counter and are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Ingredients vary widely. These readily accessible pills may seem like an easy way to lose weight, but many contain diuretics like caffeine, which merely serve to flush water weight from the body. Legitimate weight loss does not occur, but dehydration becomes a significant risk. Dangers of diet pill abuse include heart attack, stroke, and even sudden death.

Does Your Teen Need Help for OTC Medication Abuse?

It is overwhelming to find your teen using drugs, even if the substance is legal. Know that you are not alone in this stressful situation. If you are not sure where to begin, our team at Next Generation Village can help guide you.

At our beautiful Florida campus, we help families find healing from many kinds of substance abuse — from teen alcohol abuse to over-the-counter drug addiction — as well as the co-occurring mental health disorders that often accompany addiction. Our experienced medical and mental health professionals address teen addiction holistically by using both evidence-based and traditional therapies.

Without guidance, it can be hard to know what to do when your child is on drugs. But remember that we are here for you. Feel free to reach out for a confidential conversation with one of our teen addiction experts at Next Generation Village. Our help is always free and comes without obligation. Begin your child’s journey to recovery today.

Medical Disclaimer: Next Generation Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.


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