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Common Over the Counter Drugs Abused

Clinically Reviewed by Linda Whiteside, LPCC

Medically Reviewed by: Dr. Ryan Peterson, MD

Top 5 Most Common Over the Counter Drugs Abused (OTC)

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When we think about substance abuse, we often think about alcohol, prescription medications and illicit substances such as heroin and cocaine. What many fail to realize is that addictive substances can easily be found within the home, and these are the most common over the counter drugs abused.

Over-the-counter (OTC) medications are used to treat a wide variety of common household illness and injuries. However, these medications contain ingredients which produce “highs” or narcotic effects when taken in excess. These substances although legal and not requiring a prescription can still pose the same risk for addiction and potential for abuse.

The following are five common OTC medications that are abused by people. It is very important to understand that while these medications are legal, the ingredients in these medications can pose significant health dangers when abused.

The Five Most Common Over the Counter Drugs Abused

Dextromethorphan Abuse

Dextromethorphan is one of the most commonly abused over the counter drugs. Virtually every household has at least a couple bottles of cough syrup in the medicine cabinet. Popular brands such as Nyquil and Robitussin have helped many find relief. What many people may not realize is these brands—along with nearly 100 other cough medicines—contain the active ingredient dextromethorphan. This ingredient can cause hallucinations, euphoria, and distortions of color and sound if taken in large doses. These drugs can produce effects similar to PCP and Ketamine, which is why they are commonly abused by teenagers and those seeking a similar high.

It is estimated that 1 in every 10 teenagers in the United States drink cough syrup in order to experience these highs. However, abusing cough syrups with dextromethorphan can produce dangerous side effects including vomiting, nausea, shallow breathing and increased heart rate. When combined with alcohol or other drugs, it can lead to death.

Diet Pill Abuse

For people who seek to lose weight, diet pills may be a common route they take to achieve their goal. While diet pills can be effective if taken in moderation and as a part of a sound exercise and diet program, they can pose dangers if abused. If taken in excess, diet pills produce a mild buzz. What people may not realize is the active ingredients found in diet pills are considered dangerous stimulants. Diet pills pose the risk of abuse for those who are prone to stimulant abuse as these substances can produce a similar high.

Ingredients such as ephedra, ephedrine, and phenylpropanolamine can cause a variety of unpleasant side effects. These can include dizziness, tremors, irregular heartbeat and insomnia. These supplements, if abused, can also lead to high blood pressure, an increased risk of stroke, heart disease, and even death.

Motion Sickness Medications

For many people who travel by air or car, motion sickness medications such as Dramamine can be indispensable. The active ingredients in these medications such as dimenhydrinate and diphenhydramine produce hallucinogenic effects when taken in large quantities. The dose needed to achieve the desired effects is largely dependent on tolerance and one’s body weight. When abused, motion sickness medications can cause irregular heartbeat, depression, kidney damage, memory loss and abdominal pain. In worse case scenarios, these medications can cause heart attacks, coma, and death.


Pseudoephedrine is the active ingredient found in Sudafed and other similar nasal decongestants. When taken in larger doses, these medications produce increased states of alertness. People will often take medications with this ingredient to lose weight or to get “pumped up”. Large doses of medications with pseudoephedrine can cause irregular heartbeat, heart palpitations, and increased risk of heart attacks.

Pseudoephedrine is also a key ingredient in the manufacturing of methamphetamine. This has caused a change in the federal law requiring these medications to be kept behind the counter. Additionally, these medications can only be purchased in limited quantities and require photo identification to buy these medications.

Need Help with Over the Counter Medication Abuse?

While OTC medications can help with common ailments and are legal to purchase, people often abuse over the counter medications to achieve a high or other desired effect. Just because an OTC is legal to purchase does not mean it doesn’t have dangers if misused. If you suspect that a loved one may be using OTC medicines in excess or even may be addicted, now is the time to act.

NuView Integrative Recovery Services can help you, your loved overcome their struggles with OTC drug addiction or any form of substance abuse. Our programs draw from a wide variety of conventional and holistic therapies that can be tailored to meet your personal needs. Call us today and break the cycle of substance abuse and addiction once and for all.

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Written By: Linda Whiteside

Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor who has been providing mental health services for over 10 years.

Medically reviewed by: Dr. Ryan Peterson

Went to medical school at The George Washington University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C.

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