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It is a common misconception that only illegal or prescribed controlled substance drugs are dangerous. There are many over-the-counter (OTC) drugs with psychoactive or mind-altering properties that may lead to a number of serious medical and mental health consequences if abused for the mere purpose of getting high.

These harmful effects of OTC drugs frequently are compounded when they are combined with alcohol or other drugs.

Some people may choose to abuse OTC drugs as opposed to illegal drugs, due to the assumption that if they’re sold at the pharmacy as a medication then they must be safe.

Contrary to popular belief, OTC drugs can be addictive and life-threatening when misused or abused.

90% of Americans with a substance abuse problem started smoking, drinking, and abusing over-the-counter drugs before the age of 18 before trying illegal street drugs. 2.1 million Hospital visits related to drug abuse, 27.1 % involved non-medical use of over-the-counter (OTC) medicines.

Most Common Abused OTC Medications Include:

  • Sleeping Pills
    Most over-the-counter sleeping pills are intended to be used for only two to three nights at a time. Taken too often, over the counter sleeping pills may cause rebound insomnia (sleeplessness that returns in full force when you stop taking the over-the-counter sleeping pills). In the worst-case scenario, the user will begin to abuse and develop an addiction to these over-the-counter sleeping pills convincing themselves they can’t sleep without it. OTC pill abusers will use sleeping pills to come down from a high with another illicit drug to help fall asleep.

  • Cough medicines (Dextromethorphan, or DXM)
    Cough medicines can cause hallucinations and a potent high when abused. Cough medicines are popular among young people, as they’re often readily accessible in medicine cabinets at home or at a friend’s house. High doses can cause vomiting, rapid heart rate, blurred vision, shakiness, and even brain damage.

  • Cold medicines (Pseudoephedrine)
    Pseudoephedrine is a stimulant and an active ingredient in many cold medicines. People may abuse pseudoephedrine to experience hallucinations or an intense “body high.” Pseudoephedrine is often used to produce illicit drugs like methamphetamine. Abusing pseudoephedrine can cause irregular heartbeat, shortness of breath, high blood pressure, dizziness, and seizures.

  • Pain relievers (Acetaminophen)
    Acetaminophen is the active ingredient in pain relievers like Tylenol. High doses and long-term use can lead to serious health problems such as permanent liver damage. Other side effects of acetaminophen abuse include diarrhea, sweating, nausea, and stomach pain. Acetaminophen is generally taken for its pain-relieving properties. Many people abuse acetaminophen to treat chronic pain.

  • Motion sickness pills (Dimenhydrinate)
    Dimenhydrinate is properly used to treat motion sickness and vertigo. In high doses, the drug can cause hallucinations, ringing in the ears, nausea, irregular heartbeat, seizures, coma, and even death. The drug is often abused for its psychedelic properties.

If you or someone you know is struggling with a prescription or over-the-counter drug addiction, seek help. It could be the difference between a sober and healthy life and an early tragic death.

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Swallowing A Bitter Pill Book Cover Art

Swallowing A Bitter Pill: 2020 second edition now available for purchase. 

Cindy Mogil-Cooley's story of addiction to prescription and over-the-counter drugs, treatment rehabilitation, relapse, and current long-term recovery since 1997.

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