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OTC Drug Withdrawal

Over-the-counter (OTC) drugs are types of medications you can purchase at drug stores without a prescription from a doctor. When these medicines are used as directed, they provide relief for headaches, colds, or symptoms you may encounter from allergies. In moderation, OTC medication is safe, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t risks tied to use.

Unfortunately, as you’d expect with any drug, there is a potential for abuse and to cause addiction. When you abuse OTC drugs, you place yourself at an increased risk for health problems, which include kidney failure, cardiovascular issues, memory loss, stomach ulcers, and death.

The most commonly abused OTC drugs include:

  • Pain Relievers: Drugs like acetaminophen, which is the active ingredient in Tylenol, help to minimize pain. Some may abuse the medication because they suffer from chronic pain, but this can cause severe damage to the liver.
  • Cough medicine: The most popular cough medication is dextromethorphan (DXM). The medication is used to suppress coughs when someone is sick, but large quantities of the drug can lead to severe health issues. Our youth may be attracted to abusing cough medication due to the easy accessibility of DXM. Abuse may lead to intoxication or hallucinations. 
  • Cold medicine: Pseudoephedrine is the active ingredient in most cold medicines, and it is classified as a stimulant. When large quantities are consumed, it can cause alertness, a feeling of being extra stimulated, and euphoria. 
  • Motion sickness pills: Dimenhydrinate is the active ingredient in motion sickness pills, and when used in large doses, the tablets may cause an altered perception of reality. The medication boasts psychedelic properties but can be extremely dangerous when abused.
  • Diet pills: Diet pills are commonly abused when individuals are trying to shed weight fast. It can be a dangerous means of achieving weight loss if the person does not follow the instructions.

What Are Over-the-Counter Drug Withdrawal Symptoms?

As you’ll find with most drugs, OTC medications will start to change brain chemistry over time when abused. If you abuse an OTC drug, you are likely to grow tolerant to its effects. It means that when you stop taking the substance, your body will go through withdrawal, which will lead to uncomfortable symptoms.

The most common withdrawal symptoms attributed to OTC drugs include:

  • Confusion
  • Cravings
  • Agitation
  • Mood swings
  • Anxiety

What Are the Stages of Over-the-Counter Drug Withdrawal Timeline?

No matter the type of OTC drug you’ve become tolerant or addicted to, you will have to undergo detox to break free from addiction. While various factors will determine the length of withdrawal, you must take into consideration that our brain chemistry differs from one person to another. Some of the factors that will shape your experience will include:

  • Overall health
  • Age
  • Metabolism
  • History of addiction or relapse
  • Dosage
  • How frequently the drugs were consumed
  • The type(s) of drug consumed
  • Method of ingestion

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It’s challenging to provide a timeline from OTC drugs since each drug has a different effect. Regardless of which medication you abuse, physicians and addiction specialists alike will suggest that you get help before stopping. Abrupt cessation or a cold turkey detox may place you in great danger, which should never be considered if you are ready to stop.

A professional will help you come up with a program that supports your specific needs and get off OTC drugs safely. Some medications require a tapering process so that you do not have severe withdrawal symptoms.

For others, it will take a few days of uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms if they are mildly addicted. Individuals with a more severe addiction may require two to three weeks to get through the worst of their symptoms. The first few days are likely to be the most critical. You will experience the most intense withdrawal symptoms as your body chemistry tries to adjust to where it was prior to abusing the medication.

Drugs that you cannot get over the counter spilling out of a bottle

Why Should I Detox?

When our bodies acclimate to a drug, the brain mistakes this as a life-sustaining activity, and it begins to crave more. When you stop using the substance, the brain will fall into chaos and want more of that good feeling. It is the survival portion of our mind, and for it to be balanced, you must abstain from using the medication, which requires going through withdrawal.

Regardless of the OTC drug you use, it is not recommended to forego the process alone. It can be dangerous – you must consult with a physician or addiction specialist that can help you formulate a detox plan. They can lead you to a detox facility that offers inpatient services.

What Is the Next Treatment Step?

If you’ve become addicted to OTC drugs, you must go through detox and addiction treatment. While detox is a valuable part of the continuum of care, it is not enough to deal with any underlying issues you may be facing. You may have anxiety or depression issues that you have not treated that contribute to your drug use. You must be evaluated and go through therapy to get to the root of your addiction. To prevent a relapse, you essential to learn relapse prevention skills under the care of trained substance abuse professionals.


Treatment, C. for S. A. (1970, January 1). Chapter 3. Intensive Outpatient Treatment and the Continuum of Care. Retrieved from

Stanford Children’s Health. Cough Medicines Abused By Teens. Retrieved from

National Institute on Drug Abuse. OTC Medicines. Retrieved from

Medline Plus. Pseudoephedrine. Retrieved from

Dimenhydrinate. (n.d.). Retrieved from

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