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The Dangers of Abusing Over the Counter Drugs

Although over the counter drugs are available to purchase without a prescription from your doctor, it doesn’t mean that there are no dangers involved with abusing this type of medication.

Prescription drug abuse

Over the Counter Drugs

Over the counter (OTC) drugs are used to treat acute (short duration), mild to moderate illnesses or conditions.

OTC medications are relatively safe when used according to their instructions and can be effective in relieving symptoms experienced by patients.

However, when used excessively, OTC medication can have serious consequences and can even cause irreversible damage to one’s health.

Commonly Abused Drugs from Over the Counter

There are a number of classes of over the counter drugs that are more commonly abused than others. These are generally drugs that have some physical or neurological effect.

These include:

  • Pain killers
  • Anti-emetics (anti-nausea)
  • Cough mixtures
  • Cold and flu preparations

These are just some examples of over the counter drugs which can be harmful when abused.

Pain Killers

Many over the counter pain killers contain codeine, which is used to effectively treat mild to moderate pain which is not chronic.

In other words, codeine can relieve headaches and other forms of generalised pain.

However, codeine is part of the opioid class and is considered a derivative of morphine, which is highly addictive.

Apart from being a really effective pain killer, excessive use of codeine can cause a phenomenon known as rebound pain.

Rebound pain is a result of the overuse of certain pain killers and is effectively a withdrawal symptom.

So, in simple terms, the more one uses it, the more it becomes needed. The physical dependence arises from this is what causes further abuse of the medication.

In addition, codeine has a great degree of effects on the central nervous system such as euphoria, calmness and a feeling of numbness towards one’s problems. This makes it particularly addictive to individuals who have substance abuse tendencies.

Side Effects when Abused

  • Impaired judgment
  • Slurred speech
  • Drowsiness
  • Apathy
  • Constipation
  • Kidney damage
  • Poor coordination
  • Memory loss
  • Short attention span
  • Dry mouth


Anti-emetics are used to treat nausea and vomiting. However, the main side-effect of this medication is drowsiness.

Although this may be problematic to most users, some individuals may actively seek the feeling of drowsiness, especially those who struggle to sleep.

As a result, people may start to use anti-emetic drugs more frequently as they are easy to access and provide a physical feeling that may be compared to that of a tranquiliser.

It’s easy to see how this easy to obtain medication can easily become abused.

Side Effects when Abused

  • Amnesia
  • Kidney and liver damage
  • Blurred vision
  • Dizziness
  • Cardiac arrect
  • Agitation
  • Depression
  • Tinnitus
  • Arrhythmia (irregular heart beat)

Cough Mixtures

Sadly, teenagers are commonly found abusing cough mixtures because some of them contain alcohol, codeine or both.

Therefore, a young adult who is not allowed to legally purchase alcohol may end up abusing cough mixtures as they are easy to obtain.

Once again, cough mixtures can provide feelings of numbness, euphoria and can even cause drunkenness if consumed in excess.

Side Effects when Abused

  • Poor coordination
  • Dizziness
  • Slurred speech
  • Impaired judgment
  • Seizures
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Drowsiness

Cold and Flu Preparations and OTC Stimulants

Many cold and flu preparations contain a stimulant called ephedrine or pseudoephedrine. This serves as the decongestant.

However, as a stimulant, ephedrine can closely mimic the effects of illicit drugs such as methamphetamine (crystal meth/tik).

In fact, pseudoephedrine is often extracted from cold and flu preparations in order to manufacture crystal meth in illegal drug labs.

Side Effects when Abused

  • Stomach pain
  • Agitation
  • Hyperactivity
  • Breathing problems
  • Weakness
  • Poor appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Psychosis
  • Tremors
  • Insomnia
  • Heart palpitations
  • Memory loss

Avoiding Abuse of Over the Counter Drugs

As with prescription medication, over the counter medication should be taken with care. It’s important to be aware that OTC medications come with their own set of dangers.

To avoid becoming addicted or dependent on over the counter drugs, always ask your pharmacist or doctor for advice on the best medication to use and follow their instructions carefully.

Should you continue experiencing symptoms after you have completed the recommended course of over the counter treatment, it’s best to visit your doctor for further treatment.

Be aware of the potential risks that can come from abusing over the counter medication as some may cause irreversible damage, addiction, hospitalisation and, in severe cases, death.

Step Away – Rehabilitation Centre South Africa

Being aware of the potential risks involved with abusing over the counter drugs is the first step in avoiding the dangers that come with such abuse.

The signs and symptoms of abusing OTC medication are similar to that of prescription medication. However, if you’re unsure of how to identify early stages of abuse, please contact us for more information.

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