Over-The-Counter (OTC) Drugs, Accessible yet Abused

Written by Zahara Almira Ramadhan, Content Writer Intern at Project Child Indonesia

Do you recognize the show Euphoria? It is quite a popular series in which the main character is a drug-addict teenager. It’s scary, honestly, how teenagers’ exposure to drug abuse—be it at home, school, or from their own curiosity—can lead to this condition. That’s why this article will talk about this problem, especially during the commemoration of International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, or also known as World Drug Day, today. World Drug Day is marked on June 26 every year, with the purpose of strengthening the action and cooperation in achieving a world without drug abuse. Individuals, communities, and organizations all over the world are encouraged to take part in raising awareness about drug problems in society. We can contribute by sharing verified facts about drugs, such as the health risks, preventions, and solutions. Today, Project Child Indonesia wants to talk about a common drug problem among teenagers, which is over-the-counter (OTC) drug abuse.

What is OTC drug abuse?

Over-the-counter drugs refer to medicines you can buy at a store without a prescription. This might sound harmless, considering that people need generic medicines for common illnesses like flu, cough, or fever. OTC drugs are safe and effective when used accordingly as directed, but they often get misused by taking higher or frequent doses than necessary. This is a form of OTC drug abuse, which is when OTC drugs get used outside of what is medically recommended. OTC drugs often get abused because they are easy to get, inexpensive, legal, and free from age requirements or limits per purchase. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, around 3 million people aged 12 to 25 used OTC cough and cold medicines to get high (Nova Recovery Center, n.d). 

Cough and cold medicines are some of the most common OTC drugs to get abused. The reason is that cough medicines contain an active ingredient called dextromethorphan (DXM), which can make people high and create hallucinations when taken in high doses. Similarly, cold medicines contain an active ingredient named pseudoephedrine, which creates hallucinations and stimulant effects when abused. Other active ingredients in OTC drugs that are often abused to get high are loperamide in anti-diarrhea medicine and dimenhydrinate in motion sickness pills.

Taking a medicine outside of its appropriate dose and purpose will of course affect your body. Think about it as using some tools against its purpose. For example, if you use a knife to eat an apple because you are too lazy to grab a fork, the knife has a huge potential in cutting your mouth or tongue even when you’re being careful with it. Similarly, people who use OTC drugs for their personal favors are harming themselves. Some negative side effects are slurred speech and impaired motor and cognitive skills. Furthermore, long-term abuse can lead to more chronic conditions like memory loss, heart problems, kidney and liver damage, internal stomach bleeding, increased risk for stroke and high blood pressure, addiction, and death.

Yes, you read it right. OTC drug abuse can potentially lead to addiction—for certain OTC drugs, at least. Drugs that contain DXM and loperamide can lead to dependency and addiction. Similar to other addictions, OTC drug addiction is characterized by the inability to stop using the drug despite its negative effects on the person. Therefore, it is never a right choice to abuse or even consider abusing OTC drugs. But, what if we know someone who’s been abusing OTC drugs? What do we do to help? First, let’s familiarize ourselves with the signs of OTC drug abuse.

Many signs of OTC drug abuse are similar to the signs of using illegal drugs, which mainly involve physical and behavioral changes. Physical changes include overeating or undereating, gaining or losing much weight, sleeping too much or too little, and other changes that have been mentioned as the negative side effects. On the other hand, behavioral changes involve losing interest in socializing, poor performance at school or work, and irritability such as anger outbursts or blaming others. If someone you suspect of abusing OTC drugs is a family member or someone you live with, you can start paying attention to how they’ve been taking the drugs. These people may be taking more than the recommended dosage, continuing to take it once the health issue has resolved, or mixing it with alcohol or other OTC drugs carelessly. You may also notice that the scent of medicine is lingering on that person, as well as their personal space and belongings, such as their room and clothes. 

How do we help?

Like common drug addiction, OTC drug abuse and addiction need to be taken care of by professionals. The first step is to detox OTC drugs from the body, followed by rehab or therapy. OTC drug detox refers to medical management that prevents drug withdrawal symptoms and eliminates the physical dependency on the drugs. People who are addicted or have been abusing OTC drugs tend to experience withdrawal symptoms, such as mood swings, anxiety, distress, irritability, and disorientation when they stop using the drugs. A medical detox program may not always be needed for OTC drug withdrawal, but medical monitoring is helpful in ensuring the comfort of the person because they provide clinical support for psychological symptoms.

Next, rehab is needed to solve the underlying causes of the abuse. As you may know, some people tend to look for an instant fix for their personal problems, be it family problems, anxiety, depression, and so forth. This is when rehab takes place to provide behavioral therapy, support groups for recovery, and educational lectures. Therefore, what we can do to help is refer the person to certain recovery programs. Recovering indeed takes a lot of courage; it is not as simple as flushing drugs down the toilet. That’s why people who have been abusing drugs need all the support from their closest ones. Let’s not turn our attention away to ensure that our environment is free from drug abuse. 


Nova Recovery Center. (n.d). Over the Counter Drug Addiction: Side Effects, Detox, Withdrawal, and Treatment. Retrieved from: https://novarecoverycenter.com/drugs/over-the-counter-drugs/#h-what-are-the-side-effects-of-otc-drug-abuse 

UAB Medicine News. (n.d). How to Spot Over-the-Counter Drug Abuse in Family Members. Retrieved from: https://www.uabmedicine.org/-/how-to-spot-over-the-counter-drug-abuse-in-family-members 

UNODC. (n.d). International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking. Retrieved from: https://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/drugs/index-new.html