When we hear the terms “addiction” or “substance abuse,” we often think of hard substances like cocaine, heroin, prescription opioid pain relievers and alcohol.

Images of young people hopped up on club dugs like Molly or vagrants drinking from paper bags might come to mind, but there’s a whole other genre of drug abusers out there. These people are misusing and abusing over-the-counter drugs.

The OTC Abuse Epidemic

Heroin may have claimed 6,235 lives in 2013, per Drug War Facts, but acetaminophen claimed over 1,500 since the early 2000s and has sent around 78,000 to the emergency room every year with 33,000 needing hospitalization, Mother Nature Network reports. News headlines and crime statistics of what’s happening on the streets often take the focus off what’s really going behind the closed doors of American homes.

Why Abuse OTC Drugs?

Support Group

Most abusers of OTC drugs start out using them in moderation and as directed. Instruction labels often go unnoticed though — especially with newer designs that allow for the directions to be hidden underneath the sticky ingredient label. Many, if not most, OTC drug users never do more than glance at the warning labels or overdose precautions listed on these drug bottles. Instead, we’re inclined to automatically assume that a drug is safe if it can be bought over the counter.

A lot of people question whether someone can even get high from OTC drug abuse and why abusers do it. The truth is that it’s entirely possible to get high off these drugs, and that isn’t the end of it. They carry risks, too, just like illicit substances do. Some OTC drugs, like daytime cold remedies and even caffeine-containing pain relievers, provide users with a stimulating alertness that they think they need in order to get through the day. Consider it a stepping-stone to drugs like Adderall and Ritalin, something a reported 24 percent of high school students are abusing, per the Citizens Commission on Human Rights International.

Others, such as dextromethorphan (DMX), offer abusers a high similar to that associated with psychedelics. The main ingredient in many cough remedies, DMX has a lot of potential for addiction, and withdrawal from it can really pack a punch, even inflicting the addict with depression and lasting damage to the nervous and cardiovascular systems. Philly.com notes around one in 10 teenagers claims to have used cough medicine to get high at some point. Fortunately, patients who overdose on dextromethorphan often respond well to naloxone to reverse the effects when it is administered soon enough.

Others take OTC drugs — often whatever they can get their hands on — to mitigate the uncomfortable symptoms they’re suffering from due to a mental health disorder. Many substance abusers struggle with some form of mental health issue and have no idea — a great deal of them find out only after they start treatment for their addiction. A reported 50 percent of severely mentally ill individuals also engage in substance abuse, the National Alliance on Mental Illness notes.

Pseudoephedrine is another popularly abused OTC cough medicine. Mostly preferred by youths, the drug is widely available and a cause for worry because people use it to make crystal meth and methamphetamines. One of the best regulatory structures in place to deter people from abusing this drug is the requirement of a signature and driver’s license to buy it. Elevated blood pressure, seizures and even organ damage are possible side effects that can stem from an overdose on pseudo ephedrine.

Caffeine supplements and energy-inducing OTC drugs are common drugs of abuse by everyone from the college student who needs to stay up to pass tomorrow’s exam to the truck driver who wants to finish his route by dawn. Sometimes similar in nature with other additive ingredients, OTC diet pills are popular in every demographic. CBS News reported on the 2007 release of the popular diet supplement known as Alli, which five to six million people were expected to purchase every year, a statistic that has remained fairly consistent.

Dimenhydrinate, a motion sickness remedy, and diphenhydramine, an OTC allergy treatment, are both drugs of abuse due to the potent high they can deliver when enough is taken.

Some drug abusers often experiment with herbal supplements, too. Some vitamin stores and health shops will sell variants of herbs that are medicinal in small amounts but can be abused to get high, such as salvia and yohimbine.

OTC Doesn’t Equal Safe

Many people are surprised to find that abuse of OTC drugs is even possible. Most assume the very drugs they have been taking since childhood for average ailments and discomfort are 100 percent safe. One poll of medical professionals touts that 79 percent of those surveyed believed there was reason for concern when it came to misuse of OTC drugs, Be Medwise reports. If mixed with alcohol, the risks are magnified.

For most abusers of OTC drugs, the habit starts innocently. They are actually in pain and begin taking the medication every day as a remedy for it. Over time, they might start trying to prevent the onset of ailments like back pain or migraines altogether by taking the medication early. When tolerance for these drugs grows — just as it would for illicit substances — they start taking more and more of the drug and become hooked. If they try to discontinue use of it, they experience withdrawal symptoms just like other addicts do.

The Need for Treatment

Black Bear Lodge entrance

Substance abuse treatment facilities aren’t just for illicit drug and alcohol abusers. Many who abuse OTC medications seek professional help for the issue. When you first approach treatment, you’ll have to be open to discussing your drug abuse problems. No one will judge you; that isn’t what this is about. Of the 23.1 million people that the National Institute on Drug Abuse reported as being in need of substance abuse treatment in 2012, 2.5 million of them got help for their problems, and that help often started with detox. Depending on the substance you’ve been abusing and what symptoms you suffer from during withdrawal, your detox experience will be unique.

Typically, detoxing from pain relievers like acetaminophen and ibuprofen comes with both psychological and physical symptoms. The withdrawal experience may be a bit more uncomfortable for those who abuse stimulant-like drugs, such as cough meds. These drug abusers may encounter withdrawal symptoms like hallucinations and nightmares. The good news is that all of these symptoms can be treated with medications under the supervision of consulting physicians, and they can also be treated holistically.

The overall goal is to get you through detox and into addiction care that will teach you how to cope with your life and pain in all forms without substance abuse. Reach out to us here at Black Bear Lodge today for this kind of help.