While other illicit substances can carry with them severely debilitating side effects and all drug prescriptions are recorded, over-the-counter medicines are widely available for purchase, some without any regulation at all. As such, exact statistics regarding the level of abuse associated with them can be hard to determine.
In fact, the Department of Health and Human Services estimates that the number of emergency room visits caused by OTC abuse are well into the thousands each and every year.
As such, it's important that you know what these drugs are, some of the side effects of abusing OTC substances, and how to spot the signs of an OTC addict.
But first thing's first...
OTC is short for over-the-counter drugs. These substances are not as tightly regulated as many other abused substances and are actually available at most pharmacies and may even be carried by grocery stores and gas stations.
In fact, you've probably even used some of the most commonly abused OTC substances yourself. When taken in their recommended dosages, these drugs are used to treat a cough and cold, seasonal allergies, moderate insomnia, and fatigue.
Two of the most frequently abused chemicals found in over-the-counter drugs are dextromethorphan and pseudoephedrine which can be found in certain cough medicines and allergy medications respectively.
While these chemicals are typically used properly and according to the instructions on the back of the bottles, some drug users may abuse these substances by taking high doses or using them to create other street drugs.
As such, there has been quite a bit of government crackdown on the sale of certain OTC substances that have a high likelihood of abuse. Some, for instance, can only be bought in low quantities like one or two bottles. Others will require purchase through the actual pharmacy counter in order to make it harder to buy or steal large quantities. In fact, some states ban the sale of these medications to minors entirely due to the prevalence of OTC drug abuse in teens.
What's important to remember is that even though these drugs are technically legal to consume, taking them in doses higher than those recommended in order to achieve some sort of high is considered abuse.
Dextromethorphan, also known as DXM, is one of the most widely abused OTC drugs on the market today. It's classified as a morphinan class substance and has been shown to have dissociative, sedative, and stimulant properties depending on the dosage and is primarily used as a cough suppressant.
It can be found in a variety of products like Robotussin, NyQuil, TheraFlu, Delsym, and Vicks although many of these companies have created alternative products that are DXM-free in order to curb the trends of abuse.
Abuse of this OTC substance occurs in large part in order to feel the dissociative hallucinogenic effects that the drug can have on the body. Some users will also report an energy rush similar to that produced by other stimulants such as cocaine as well as an overarching sensation of euphoria. In fact, DXM affects the brain by stimulating the same neuron receptors as the street drug PCP.
The high of DXM abuse depends largely on the amount consumed. Users report feeling the effects for anywhere from a few hours to several days but the average span of its effects will probably be felt for 6-10 hours. And while some of this time might be spent feeling its pleasant side effects, most of it will actually involve the unpleasant ones such as:
As such, the high associated with DXM can end up being far from enjoyable.
When it comes to the profile of a DXM addict, most cases of abuse are committed by teenagers. This is true for a few reasons. First, DXM can be incredibly easy to get your hands on. In most states, medications containing this chemical can be found in your local grocery store or pharmacy and don't have any sorts of regulations.
DXM is also perceived as being safer than street drugs. The safety problem is one issue in particular that should be dealt with when discussing the dangerous effects of this drug. Continued abuse of DXM in high doses can lead to severe kidney and liver damage and even death.
This over-the-counter drug is also abused by teens because it's incredibly cheap and easy to hide from their parents. When it comes to spending a few bucks on a bottle of cough syrup or having to gather up enough money to pay for drugs illegally, the choice is pretty clear to the younger population of which road to take, especially when their income is severely limited. What's more, most parents don't even know that dextromethorphan can be abused in the first place, making it much easier to hide its misuse.
And finally, addiction to DXM is common mostly in teens because these are the years where their access to other drugs such as marijuana and alcohol are pretty limited. Once they are out of the house and reach a legal drinking age, many abusers will opt for these other drugs rather than forcing down a bottle of cough syrup. And while the "they'll grow out of it" mentality is certainly prevalent, it's important to recognize the fact that addiction is a disease and these addictive behaviors are likely to simply transfer over to a new drug of choice.
To make it easier to identify DXM abuse, here are a few street names for dextromethorphan:
When dextromethorphan is combined with soda or alcohol, the concoction is called:
This particular drug is the second most commonly abused over-the-counter medicine behind DXM. As its name suggests, pseudoephedrine is technically considered to be a stimulant. As such, using it in higher doses than recommended can produce a wide variety of effects similar to other stimulants such as:
Due to its tendency to shrink nasal mucous membranes that have become swollen, it is most commonly used as a nasal decongestant in products like Sudafed Triple Action, Advil Allergy Sinus, Mucinex D, and Claritin-D.
As such, many meth producers were flocking to pharmacies and supermarkets to buy up as much pseudoephedrine-containing products as possible. Recent regulation, however, has worked to limit the number of pseudoephedrine products that can be sold at a time and even requires some stores to keep an active log of who is buying these medications. Some states have even made pseudoephedrine only available with a legal prescription.
Two of the primary indicators of addiction are the presence of a built-up tolerance (your body getting used to the drug and needing more for a high) and experiencing symptoms of withdrawal. For OTC addicts, most of these symptoms will primarily be psychological. Some symptoms they might experience are:
When it comes to spotting the other signs of OTC drug addiction, you'll want to be on the lookout for a variety of addiction behaviors such as:
While these side effects of OTC drug abuse are certainly common in addicts, they don't necessarily mean that someone actually has a substance use disorder. As such, only a qualified professional can say 100% if they are suffering from an addiction to OTC medications.
But even so, if you truly want to help someone who is addicted, one of the best things you can do for them and for their future is to convince them to get the help they need.
While many people may not consider abusing over-the-counter drugs to be a serious problem, the truth is the consequences for this type of behavior can be incredibly dangerous. Not only can these substances be used to create more powerful street drugs that can ruin lives, abusing OTC medications can also lead to addiction as well as severe consequences to your health.
So don't be fooled by their legality; OTC drugs can be just as dangerous as other illicit substances.