OTC Drug Addiction

OTC (over-the-counter) drug addiction is, surprisingly, a lesser-known type of addiction. In the world of addiction, or substance use disorders (SUD), most people instinctively think about substances like heroin or cocaine. In fact, OTC drugs are almost always overlooked. But they shouldn’t be.

Addiction or substance use disorders should always be taken seriously regardless of the substances being abused. Since addiction itself is a diagnosable condition recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-V) and by health care providers around the world, it’s a debilitating condition that affects millions. Substance use disorders are chronic and progressive, meaning they will continually impact those who struggle with them and worsen with time.

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Proper treatment is the only way to find relief from a substance use disorder. OTC drug addiction is a serious calamity that must be addressed with addiction treatment to get your life back under control. If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction to over-the-counter medications, read on to learn more about these drugs and what OTC drug addiction treatment entails.

What Are OTC Drugs?

Many people may be unclear about what an over-the-counter, or OTC drug, is and which ones can cause addiction and dependence. You may not even think twice when you reach into your medicine cabinet to grab cold or allergy medication. However, with the rise in OTC drug addiction, particularly among young people, perhaps it’s time to take a closer look.

Addiction doesn’t only pertain to street drugs or illicit drugs. In fact, the most commonly abused drugs in the United States are legal medicines. OTC drugs are a classification of substances that are readily available to the general public. They don’t require a prescription, which means one could simply walk into any pharmacy or corner store and pick up and pay for a bottle of medication.

These drugs are considered “safe and effective,” according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, when taken incorrectly, one can achieve a high from these “safe” substances.

Cough medicines, allergy medications, decongestants, antihistamines, pain relievers, dietary supplements or laxatives, and motion sickness medications are among the commonly sold drugs people search for when wanting to get high. These substances each contain certain ingredients that, when taken in large quantities, can result in the desired effects of a high or intoxication.

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OTC drug addiction is far more common than one would think and often is a serious problem from those affected. Much like those who struggle with alcoholism, an OTC drug addiction is particularly troublesome because of the legality and availability of these medications. 

Since obtaining street drugs and other prescription drugs is often far more difficult, children and teens are especially at-risk when it comes to OTC drug addiction.

Commonly Abused OTC Medications

The most commonly abused OTC medications for teens and young people include:

Dextromethorphan (DXM) (Robitussin and NyQuil): Found mostly in OTC cough suppressants and mucus removal medications, these products treat sinus congestion, runny nose, sneezing, cough, itchy nose or throat, and watery eyes from the flu or allergies. High doses of DXM can result in euphoria, among other effects, according to the Center for Substance Abuse Research (CESAR). 

Loperamide (Imodium): This medication is used to treat diarrhea. When taken in large enough amounts, it can activate the brain’s opioid receptors and produce euphoria, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)

Pseudoephedrine (Sudafed, Benadryl, Zyrtec): Used to relieve nasal congestion caused by allergies, colds, and hay fever. This product can bring on stimulant effects, causing a user to experience hyperactive feelings, according to ConsumerMedSafety.org. Because this medicine is used to make the illicit drug methamphetamine, federal law limits how much can be purchased. 

Dimenhydrinate (Dramamine): Dramamine is the popular brand associated with this medication, and it is used to treat motion sickness. In high enough doses. However, it can cause users to experience a high. Recreational use can also lead to hallucinations, according to ConsumerMedSafety.org.

Caffeine Pills (No-Doz): Widely available in places like truck stops, gas stations, and big-box pharmacies, these pills are abused for their stimulant effects. These products can contain natural or artificial caffeine. However, this substance is also abused for its stimulant effects. 

Diphenhydramine (Unisom, Benadryl, Nytol): This is an antihistamine used to treat the pain and itching associated with insect bites, burns, poison ivy, poison oak, and minor cuts. When taken outside of its medical context, it is capable of inducing drowsiness and sedation, according to Drugs.com.   

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OTC Withdrawal Symptoms

Dextromethorphan (DXM)

The withdrawal symptoms associated with this medication are insomnia, dysphoria, diarrhea, vomiting, severe weight loss, upset stomach, and anxiety. People who chronically take heavy doses of this product can develop psychosis, according to CESAR. 


Because this substance is an opioid, it is capable of producing withdrawal symptoms in high enough doses, including diarrhea, muscle pain, joint pain, nausea, vomiting, hot and cold flashes.  


Withdrawal symptoms are unlikely after use of the drug stops, according toEveryday Health.


Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea have been reported from dimenhydrinate, according to this case report.

Caffeine Pills 

The most common withdrawal symptoms that come from No-Doz, a popular caffeine pill, include irritation, nervousness, mood swings, and headaches, according to a listing from Kaiser Permanente.


Reported withdrawal symptoms of this medication include insomnia and irritability. 

What Are the Signs of OTC Drug Addiction?

Like other substances, identifying an OTC drug addiction is important. Since many people can suffer from long-term physical side effects from prolonged OTC drug abuse, not to mention suffering from an overdose, time is of the essence.

Addiction is a unique condition in the sense that it may manifest differently from person to person. This means that how addiction impacts you may be different for another individual. The following are some of the more commonly noted OTC drug addiction symptoms that should stick out as red flags. 

A person with an OTC drug addiction may exhibit some or all of the following OTC drug addiction symptoms:

  • Empty medicine bottles in the trash
  • Ordering OTC drugs in bulk online
  • Purchasing large amounts of OTC drugs when not necessary
  • Large collection of OTC medications in easily accessible places
  • Missing OTC medications in the medicine cabinet
  • Medicinal scents on breath or clothing
  • Social withdrawal
  • Negative performance in work or school activities
  • Secretive behavior
  • Change in appetite
  • Insomnia
  • Change in sleeping patterns
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities or hobbies
  • Mood swings
  • Personality changes
  • Emotional outbursts
  • Depression
  • Impaired motor skills
  • Memory impairment
  • Slurred speech
  • Money and/or valuables missing

OTC drug addiction symptoms can be physical, behavioral, or environmental. It’s important to keep an eye out for any of the above symptoms or sudden changes in yourself or a loved one. These can be the early warning signs that may seem minor but are actually indicative of a much deeper problem.

OTC drug addiction is a life-threatening condition that should always be taken seriously. If you believe you or a loved one may be currently struggling with an OTC drug addiction, taking active steps toward getting the help you need is crucial to prevent a tragedy. 

OTC drug addiction treatment is the only way to successfully overcome an OTC drug addiction safely and effectively. Read on to learn more about what goes into OTC drug addiction treatment and what you can expect when you go to drug rehab.

What Is Involved in OTC Drug Addiction Treatment?

If you or your loved one has been officially diagnosed with an OTC drug addiction, you can rest assured that there is help available. In recent years, further research has gone into substance abuse disorder treatment and has provided new evidence-based treatments and addiction therapy to help you get back to your normal life.

What’s important in OTC drug addiction treatment is being sure to undertake the full continuum of care. Without successfully following through all of the alcohol rehab or drug rehab, addicts and alcoholics are often destined to return to active addiction.

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The full continuum of care refers to the multilevel approach to addiction treatment. By starting in higher levels of care, which contain more hands-on endeavors by the medical and clinical addiction professionals and slowly descending into lower levels (which have less intensive medical/clinical intervention), you can allow yourself time to slowly regain personal freedom and responsibilities. By doing so, you can avoid overwhelming yourself too early in recovery and ultimately relapse.


The first step in the full continuum of care, detox is one of the most important stages of OTC drug addiction treatment. While OTC drugs are not physically addictive, meaning the body and brain do not develop a dependence on them, they are still psychologically addictive and can cause some intense health issues.

Many people who struggle with OTC drug addiction also engage in poly-drug use or using more than one substance at a time. In these cases, many times, the person is using another substance that is physically addictive and requires medical detox services to overcome the potential withdrawal symptoms associated with their poly-drug use.

Whatever the case may be, detox is important since the overall goal is to provide medical stabilization to patients. Since abusing OTC drugs can cause a slew of health problems, getting hands-on medical care is crucial when attempting to stop using.

When you arrive at detox, you’ll be seen and assessed by the medical team. Detoxes possess full medical staff, which consists of doctors, nurses, and other medical support staff members. The attending physician will conduct an overall assessment of your OTC drug addiction and physical health. 

Upon completing your assessment, an individualized medical detox plan will be formulated and implemented for you. Detox plans often include different detox medications that combat detox side effects and specific therapy methods designed to meet your personal needs.

Throughout your stay in the detox program, you’ll be consistently monitored by the medical staff. Besides monitoring and dispensing your detox medications, your vitals and health will be checked 24-7 to ensure your safety and positive response to treatment. Since detox can put stress on the body, different underlying health conditions may flare up in addition to the different withdrawal symptoms you may experience.

Although most of the emphasis is put on the medical aspect of detox, particularly with OTC drug addiction treatment, attention must be paid to the clinical aspect as well. Therapists, case managers, and support staff are all present at the detox and ready to provide clinical and therapeutic services to patients.

Since the majority of OTC drug addiction withdrawal symptoms are emotional/mental, it makes having the clinical presence all the more important. They will work with you throughout your stay and begin helping you get to the bottom of your addiction and other emotional problems. 

Inpatient/Residential Treatment

Following a successful detox, it’s important to keep going with your OTC drug addiction treatment plan and move into the next phase of the full continuum of care: inpatient or residential treatment. This level of care focuses less on the medical aspect and more on the therapeutic aspects of treatment.

In residential treatment, you’ll live on-site at the facility. Here, you’ll undergo a full-time curriculum of different addiction therapy techniques intended to get to the root causes of your addiction, address any additional mental health issues, and provide any dual diagnosis treatment you may need.

During your stay, which can be anywhere from 30 to 90 days varying on a case-by-case basis, you’ll learn different life skills and various coping mechanisms that will help you in recovery even after treatment ends. You’ll be subjected to both group and individual therapy sessions in which you’ll be able to process your addiction and any other underlying mental health needs.

Residential treatment is an important facet of OTC drug addiction treatment since this is where the heavy therapeutic lifting takes place. While the primary focus of residential treatment is the clinical portion, you’ll still have access to medical intervention in the form of a full medical staff. You will still see a physician, have access to medication management if necessary, and have your health continually monitored in case you may be suffering from Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome, or PAWS. 

Intensive Outpatient

After inpatient comes intensive outpatient or IOP. Similar to inpatient in regards to the intensity of the therapeutic methods used during this stage, the main difference here is that therapy no longer occurs on a full-time schedule. Rather than being in groups and therapy sessions all day, you’ll only have IOP sessions a few times a week for several hours at a time.

You’ll also need to find alternative housing. During IOP, you no longer live at the facility. Many people opt for structured sober living homes (halfway houses), or you can choose to return to your own home. 

While in IOP, you’ll have far more personal freedom and responsibility to your recovery. Many people begin to start working again and take up other extracurricular activities. 

At this stage of OTC drug addiction treatment, you will be medically stabilized and fairly self-sufficient in sobriety. However, to ensure you stay on track and accountable to your sobriety, you’ll be subjected to random weekly drug tests to be sure you’re remaining drug and alcohol-free.

IOP is usually shorter than residential treatment, as the typical IOP program only lasts six to eight weeks. This period can be strenuous for people who are in the beginning stages of their recovery from alcohol or drugs. IOP acts as a buffer between rehab and the community at large. By attending an IOP, you help solidify your foundation in recovery and give yourself more time to acclimate to your new life as a sober, recovering individual. 


Outpatient programs, or OP, follows IOP. Similarly, the fact that OP occurs on a part-time basis and requires alternative housing, the main difference is the length of the program and how frequently OP sessions occur. 

OP sessions typically only occur once a week for about an hour at a time. Clients are usually well on their way in their personal recoveries at this point and only need minor clinical intervention and support. The majority of the responsibility for maintaining sobriety will rest on you, but you still maintain some clinical and therapeutic support.


OP programs last far longer than their IOP counterparts. OP programs will typically go on for several months following the completion of IOP, giving a long-lasting source of support as you navigate your way through life as a member of recovery. OP programs are excellent methods of relapse prevention. 

Even though OP occurs on a fairly minimal basis, in order to help keep you accountable, you’ll be subjected to random drug testing. Maintaining complete abstinence from drugs and alcohol are requirements of all OP programs, so keeping yourself on track in recovery is important, even after rehab ends.

How Dangerous are OTC Drugs?

Despite being seemingly safe and innocuous on the surface, OTC drugs are actually fairly dangerous. The only way to achieve the high (the end result OTC drug abusers are searching for) is by taking large quantities of the drug. This leads to a greater chance of overdose. Overdose from OTC drugs is not only possible but also incredibly likely.

Another reason why OTC drugs are so dangerous is not only their readily available and cheap nature but also their target demographics. The primary demographics struggling with OTC drug addiction are kids, teens, and older adults. These demographics are also the most susceptible people to suffer overdose due to weakened immune systems.

OTC Overdose Dangers

Dextromethorphan (DXM)

MedlinePlus.gov states that DXM overdose can result in the following symptoms: 

  • Increase in body temperature
  • Heart palpitations, rapid heartbeat
  • Blurred vision
  • Coma
  • Constipation
  • Seizures
  • Drowsiness
  • Dizziness
  • Slow and labored breathing, shallow breathing, or no breathing
  • Bluish-colored fingernails and lips
  • Hallucinations
  • High or low blood pressure
  • Muscle twitches
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Spasms of the stomach and intestines


The overdose effects from this product can include the following, according to MedlinePlus.gov:

  • Slow and shallow breathing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fainting
  • Fast, pounding, or irregular heartbeat
  • Nausea
  • Inability to urinate
  • Confusion
  • Narrowing of the pupils
  • Unresponsiveness


Everyday Health states that overdose from pseudoephedrine can result in:

  • Hallucinations
  • Convulsions
  • Changes in breathing
  • Changes in heart rate


Dimenhydrinate overdose can result in the following, states MedlinePlus.gov:

Bladder and kidneys

  • Inability to urinate

Eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and throat

  • Very dry eyes
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Enlarged pupils
  • Blurred vision
  • Dry mouth

Heart and blood vessels

  • Low blood pressure
  • Rapid heartbeat

Stomach and intestines

  • Vomiting
  • Nausea

Nervous system

  • Nervousness
  • Tremor
  • Confusion
  • Seizures
  • Delirium
  • Drowsiness
  • Hallucinations 
  • Agitation
  • Depression
  • Increased sleepiness
  • Unsteadiness


  • Dry, red skin

OTC Drug Abuse Statistics

OTC drug addiction is a growing problem in the United States. Despite being one of the lesser known forms of addiction, it is still a serious condition affecting millions of people worldwide. The following statistics surround OTC drug addiction and illustrate the true nature of these household drugs:

  • 93 percent of people in the U.S. use OTC medications to treat minor issues before seeing a doctor.
  • 1 in 8 teenagers, or 12 percent, admit to abusing OTC cough syrup, according to the Partnership for a Drug-Free America.
  • According to SAMHSA, more than 3 million young people in the United States between 12 and 25 years old are thought to have used OTC cough and cold medications non medically in 2006. 

Start Your Journey to Recovery Today

Are you or a loved one currently struggling with an OTC drug addiction? Let Pathway to Hope help you. Fully staffed with medical and clinical professionals, Pathway to Hope uses many evidence-based practices and proven addiction treatment methods in sunny South Florida to help you get back on your feet.

With our admissions team standing by 24-7, we’re here to answer your call and any questions you may have. By calling now or contacting us online, you’ll be connected to one of our professional and caring staff members who can walk you through the admissions process and help you take the first step on your journey to recovery today.

Don’t delay. Make the call that will change your life and help you achieve your goal of living happy, healthy, and sober.