The Most Commonly Abused OTC Drugs on the Market Today and Why They're So Addictive

Despite their deceptively harmless appearance, over-the-counter drugs can actually be incredibly hazardous to your health when not used according to the instructions.

What's more, these substances can also end up causing physical dependencies and full-blown addiction with a severity that rivals many illicit drugs like cocaine or speed. As such, it's important to know which over-the-counter drugs are especially dangerous and should be avoided at all costs.

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What Are OTC Drugs?

Found in nearly any Walgreens, Walmart, CVS, or practically any other grocery store in the country, over-the-counter (OTC) drugs are everywhere we look today.

These are your cold medicines, your allergy pills, your multivitamins and herbal supplements.

Basically, any medication you can use to treat an ailment without the help of a doctor is an OTC drug. When these medications are used properly and according to their instructions, they can be instrumental in treating diseases like the common cold and allergies.

But when they're abused, they become especially hazardous to your health and may actually cause a physical dependency.

Can You Get Addicted to OTC Drugs?

The short answer is yes.

It is possible to become addicted to nearly any OTC medication, though physical dependency may in fact depend on the drug.

But as recent research has shown, addiction is not just about dependency. Instead, addiction is a complex disease characterized by a number of compulsive and drug-seeking behaviors, all of which have been reinforced over time.

It is possible, then, to develop an addiction to a substance that's been shown to not be physically addictive.

As such, OTC drugs do pose a very real threat of addiction over time and, as a result, can actually become addictive.


The Most Commonly Abused OTC Drugs

Below, we've gathered together some of the most commonly abused over-the-counter drugs. And while this list covers the most common OTC medications that are abused, it is in no way exhaustive.

Just as new drugs are hitting the market every day (there are over 300,000 different ones today), abusers are coming up with new ways to get high on them just as often.


Remember, any drug can become a substance of abuse, so be careful.

Perhaps one of the most infamous OTC substances of abuse, dextromethorphan (also known as DXM) is a cough suppressant that was commonly found in some of the biggest names in the industry like Robitussin, Vicks, Triaminic, Coricidin.

According to data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2.6% of 8th graders had misused cough syrup in 2016. And this number rises to 3% and 4% in 10th graders and 12th graders respectively.

A DXM trip is characterized by a sense of euphoria as well as visual and auditory hallucinations. However, users also typically will feel:

  • Agitation
  • Paranoia
  • Lack of motor control
  • Confusion
  • Sensory abnormalities
  • Feeling like they're floating

Beyond that, continued DXM abuse, according to the DEA, is associated with severe psychological dependence and a long list of possible side effects including liver damage, seizures, coma, and fatal overdose.

This is undoubtedly one OTC drug you do not want to get hooked on.

Over-the-counter diet pills have been around for a long time but few points in history have given consumers such open and unregulated access to such an enormous variety of these dangerous stimulants.

Many of these drugs are essentially lighter versions of speed and the prescribed brands often even share the same main ingredient (amphetamine). When taken in high enough doses, some people may experience similar stimulating effects. And while it is illegal to sell any such pills without a prescription, that doesn't mean the OTC versions are entirely safe.

Some weight loss pills, for example, contained horse steroids, suspected carcinogens, and potential heart health compromisers.

What's more, the Food and Drug Administration is regularly sending out public notifications about these drugs, mostly with regards to the products having hidden drug ingredients. The dangers here, then, are that even if you are extremely careful about what you put into your body, you may be taking in additionally hazardous substances without even knowing it.

What's more, overusing such pills may lead to a physical addiction and overdose similar to other stimulants as well.

At first glance, caffeine as a substance of abuse is a seemingly innocuous one. After all, people drink coffee, sodas, and teas all day long. It can't be that bad for you, can it?

But as with most substances, overusing it can lead to a number of health problems down the line.

And when there are OTC drugs that contain enormous amounts of caffeine such as NoDoz caffeine pills (more than 2x as much as a cup of coffee) and X-Mode Energy Shots (over 3x as much as a cup of coffee), the threat of overdosing is even more real. There are more products with even higher amounts too.

But even more concerning is the fact that these products don't even need to be bought at a pharmacy - we can actually consume dangerous levels of this chemical right from everyday products.

A 16-year-old student, for example, died in May of 2017 after consuming a café latte, a large Diet Mountain Dew, and an energy drink in a two-hour timespan. He died of caffeine-induced arrhythmia, an abnormal heartbeat brought on by the chemical.

So, while OTC drugs are certainly ones to watch out for, that doesn't mean that they only come in pill form. The most dangerous one might be right in your cup.

Another common target of individuals looking to get high off of readily-available substances is motion sickness medication.

While small recommended doses can help reduce the dizziness and nausea that can come from too much irregular movement, Dramamine (technically known as dimenhydrinate) can also bring on feelings of euphoria, delirium, and hallucinations.

It's no wonder, then, that many young people think Dramamine is one of the best over-the-counter pills that get you high.

However, just because this drug is available in stores across the country doesn't mean that it doesn't have a long list of complications that can result in a number of ill health effects including:

  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Stroke
  • Heart attack
  • Impaired kidney function
  • Liver damage
  • Stomach ulcers

And while the jury is still out on the physical addictive potential, there have been cases of psychological Dramamine addiction reported. As such, if you think you may have developed an addiction to this OTC drug, it's important that you get the help you need.

This drug is another one of the most common OTC drugs that get you high. This chemical compound is used in these medicines as a nasal and sinus decongestant.

Some of the most common brand names that include pseudoephedrine according to Drugs.com are:

  • Sudafed
  • Suphedrin
  • SudoGest
  • Sudodrin
  • Genaphed
  • Nasofed
  • Silfedrine
  • Drixoral Decongestant
  • Elixsure Decongestant
  • Unifed

When abused, its effects include a short-lived but noticeable euphoria along with increased energy levels and the possibility of hallucinations.

And while it certainly is possible that pseudoephedrine is used alone as a substance of abuse, it's become a lot more notorious in the drug world for its role in creating methamphetamine, a.k.a. crystal meth.

As a result, many people looking to create a batch of this powerful drug will usually resort to stealing it from pharmacies or buying it in bulk online. However, drug enforcement agencies have recently cracked down on this particular OTC and put measures in place to prevent its abuse such as an online registry of everyone who buys the product.

Regardless, this drug is technically classified as a central nervous system (CNS) stimulant so it does hold the possibility of creating a physical addiction in abusers. Like most other OTC drugs however, the main risk is psychological.

Herbal supplements have exploded in popularity over the past couple of decades. Many people believe that these pills give them more control over their health, may be more effective than modern medicine, and offer them treatment options that would have otherwise been unknown to them.

However, just like other OTC medications on the shelves of your local pharmacy today, herbal supplements do in fact carry the risk for abuse. Two drugs in particular, kava and kratom, have become highly abused substances recently and carry with them some pretty dangerous risks.

Both of these herbal drugs are used for their euphoric and analgesic (pain management) effects at higher doses. At low doses, the DEA points out that kratom actually creates a stimulant effect (and the same goes for kava).

The problem with these drugs is that they have been shown to result in a physical dependency, especially kratom. And as with any physical dependency, a kratom addiction comes with its own set of withdrawals which may end up being similar to those of opioids like heroin and OxyContin.

Who isn't enticed by the promise of a good night's sleep? With our increasingly hectic modern lives and a sleep-disrupting smart device next to every bedside, getting a healthy amount of shut-eye can be tough.

As a result, many people turn to sleep aids to provide them with a solid 8 hours. But when doing so turns into a habit rather than a short-term solution, it can be difficult sleep a wink without them.

What's more, when these drugs are abused for reasons other than to bring on sleep (such as to enhance the effects of alcohol similar to benzodiazepines), this type of behavior especially can lead to developing an actual addiction.

What's more, many of these drugs also carry with them the risk of "parasomnias," or movements and behaviors that you can't control after taking these drugs, similar to sleepwalking. As a result, you may eat, make phone calls, or even drive a car, all without being aware of it.

And if you're addicted to these drugs, the risk of engaging in these risky behaviors is even higher.


Why Is Abusing OTC Drugs So Dangerous?

One of the biggest things that makes abusing OTC drugs so dangerous is the fact that they are so widely available.

The open and unfettered access to these substances is problematic for two reasons.

First off, it makes it much easier to get your hands on these drugs. So once you do become addicted to them, you don't have to go through any illegal (or expensive) means of obtaining them.

And given that price and illegality are a few of the biggest deterrents of using, this one is pretty huge.

The second reason abusing these medications is so dangerous ties in closely with the first: more open access means they must be safer… right?

Unfortunately, that simply is not the case. According to the New York Times, overdoses on acetaminophen (the main ingredient in Tylenol) are the cause of around 30,000 hospitalizations every year - many of which are from unwittingly exceeding the safe limits.

When these drugs are abused though, that's where the real danger comes in. Abusing OTC cough and cold medications, for example can lead to:

  • Impaired motor function
  • Numbness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Increased heart rate
  • Heightened blood pressure
  • Extreme agitation
  • Liver damage
  • Hypoxic brain damage
  • Respiratory depression (potentially fatal)

It's clear, then, that OTC drugs can in fact be just as dangerous as illicit ones.

OTC Drugs: Not Quite as Harmless as You'd Think

When substances like over-the-counter drugs are so freely available and unregulated, it can be tough to realize how dangerous they can really be. And while the list of warnings on the back of the bottle is at least some indication of the hazards involved, not everyone follows the proper instructions.

As a result, these substances are commonly abused to create a variety of effects, all while many abusers aren't fully aware of the dangers of doing so.

Recognizing that many freely-available substances can still be harmful to your health and potentially addictive is the first step in safeguarding yourself against the risks of using these drugs.

And the second step is getting help if you've begun to develop a problem. It may just save your life.

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