After marijuana and alcohol, prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medications are the most commonly abused drugs by Americans aged 14 and older, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

Any use of a medication for non-medical purposes, such as to achieve a mind-altering effect, is considered abuse. OTC medications are legal to buy, fairly inexpensive, and easily accessible, making them prime candidates for young adults and teenagers to abuse.

One in every 10 teenagers admits to abusing cough or cold medicine to get high, reports the Drug Enforcement Administration, or DEA. Many of these cough and cold preparations, such as NyQuil, Robitussin DM, Triaminic DM, and Dimetapp DM, contain dextromethorphan, or DXM, which can have psychoactive effects when ingested in large quantities. These products also often contain an over-the-counter analgesic as well, such as aspirin or acetaminophen, which can cause liver or kidney damage when abused.

OTC medications may be combined with other drugs or alcohol, increasing all the potential side effects, risk factors, and the chance of an overdose. Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, as published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC.

Signs of over-the-counter medication abuse

Recognizing the warning signs of over-the-counter drug abuse may potentially be lifesaving. Some of the things to look for include:

  • Collection of medicine bottles in easy-to-reach locations
  • Empty medicine bottles in the trash
  • Mood swings or a personality shift
  • Periods of intoxication, including slurred speech, impaired motor coordination, and cognitive abilities
  • Memory lapses
  • A drop in school or workplace productivity
  • Withdrawal from social situations
  • Lack of interest in activities previously enjoyed
  • Changes in physical appearance, such as weight fluctuations
  • Differences in sleep patterns
  • Changes in appetite
  • Strange packages in the mail, which are OTC medications ordered online
  • Disappearance of OTC medications from your medicine cabinet
  • Regular large purchases of cough or cold medications when not medically necessary
  • Medicinal smell or odor on breath or clothing

Many people view over-the-counter medications as safer than illicit drugs since they are legal, found in an average medicine cabinet, and can be bought at most grocery or drug stores. When taken as directed, these medications are generally safe; however, when they are abused, they may have a host of side effects and risk factors. These medications can cause organ damage, heart problems, and potentially interfere with normal brain functions when abused regularly.

The abuse of cough and cold medication is often called “robo-tripping,” “skittling” or “dexing.” The Internet is a prime source of abuse techniques and even for ordering the products directly. Since adolescents and teens spend so much time online, and their age brings increased risks, it’s important to educate youth on the dangers of OTC drug abuse. Abusing any drugs at a young age can increase the odds of developing a substance abuse or dependency later in life, as the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) found that marijuana abusers who waited until after age 18 to begin using the drug were diagnosed with a substance abuse or dependency 2.6 percent of the time while those who used marijuana before age 14 developed an abuse or dependency 11.5 percent of the time.

Talk to your loved one about the dangers of OTC medication abuse, as prevention is key. If you, or a loved one, are having difficulties with OTC abuse or dependency, our highly trained professionals at The Recovery Village can provide a full continuum of care, including behavioral therapies, support groups, counseling sessions, and intervention strategies. We can offer the necessary tools for a smooth recovery and help you achieve the sober, healthy life you want. Call us today.

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Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.