These Are the OTC Medicines That Are the Most Abused
There's danger lurking in every drugstore aisle.
Though over-the-counter medication makes healthcare more accessible, giving people such easy access to drugs certainly comes with serious risks. We all hear about the thousands (17,000-plus, to be exact) of prescription-related overdoses in the United States, but OTC medication abuse doesn’t get the same level of media coverage. Yet, it’s just as much of a problem, and one that frequently has tragic consequences. So keep reading to discover the most abused OTC medications—you’ll never look at cough medicine or pain relief pills the same way again. And in more surprising health news, here are the 23 Weirdest Things You Can Be Allergic To.
Dextromethorphan, or DXM for short, is a cough suppressant found in over-the-counter cold medicines like NyQuil and Delsym. But DXM is harmful when ingested in excess.
The National institute on Drug Abuse notes that OTC medications containing this potent ingredient are some of the most commonly misused. According to the National Capital Poison Center, DXM abuse is responsible for some 6,000 emergency room visits each year, almost half of which are among patients between the ages of 12 and 25.
Most commonly sold under the brand name Imodium, loperamide is an over-the-counter antidiarrheal agent. Though the drug is perfectly safe when used properly, the National Institute on Drug Abuse also lists it as one of the most commonly abused OTC medications. That’s because it’s a synthetic opioid—albeit one that mainly hits receptors in the digestive tract. When the medication is misused, possible side effects include dizziness, heart problems, and even death.
Caffeine in powder and pill form is much more dangerous than the caffeine found naturally in products like coffee. According to the Center on Addiction, one tablespoon of caffeine power, or 10,000 milligrams, can be fatal for an adult. Even in lower doses it can cause dehydration, panic attacks, and heart irregularities.
Following the caffeine-related deaths of two young men in 2014, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) banned the sale of certain pure caffeine products. But abuse of this OTC substance is still an issue.
Though the FDA has banned some of the most common—and most dangerous—ingredients found in diet pills, those currently on the market can still be addictive. People with eating disorders especially should steer clear of these OTC drugs, “natural” or otherwise.
A 2003 study from the Center on Addiction showed that those with eating disorders were up to five times more likely to abuse diet pills and other illicit substances.
Drugs in the laxative family stimulate bowel movements for those dealing with constipation. But teens and young adults looking to lose weight will sometimes use these drugs not because they need them, but because they want to “eliminate unwanted calories,” the National Eating Disorders Association explains. But these drugs don’t actually contribute to weight loss, and abusing them can cause organ malfunction, severe dehydration, and other potentially-serious health issues.
Motion Sickness Pills
Believe it or not, motion sickness pills are one of the most abused OTC medications. Dimenhydrinate, better known as its brand name Dramamine, can cause a person to experience delirium and hallucinations when taken in excess.
And diphenhydramine, which is found in Benadryl (an antihistamine also frequently used to treat motion sickness) can put people in a lucid, dreamy state when taken in high doses.
Sexual Performance Medications
One study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior surveyed nearly 2,000 healthy undergraduate men and found that approximately four percent of them had used erectile dysfunction drugs at some point simply for recreational purposes. When used in excess, sexual performance medications can cause the kind of dizziness that some people equate with a high.
Pseudoephedrine is a nasal decongestant found in common cold medicines like Sudafed. Though it’s less commonly abused than cough syrup, some people (particularly athletes) will load up on pseudoephedrine in order to become hyperaware and hyperactive.
And because its effects are similar to those of amphetamines, people will buy the drug to produce methamphetamine. That’s why nowadays, most drugstores only sell products with pseudoephedrine behind the counter and in limited quantities.
Herbal ecstasy is a blanket term used to describe a “combination of herbs that are legal, inexpensive, and marketed as a ‘natural high,'” according to the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. At gas stations and drugstores, you’ll find herbal ecstasy sold under names like Herbal X, Herbal Bliss, Cloud 9, Xphoria, and Rave Energy.
Though these products are technically legal, the main ingredients in them—ephedrine or ephedra—were banned by the FDA as dietary supplements after being linked to multiple deaths. Today, people use herbal ecstasy to induce MDMA-like feelings of euphoria. It’s particularly dangerous considering several documented side effects include seizures, strokes, and cardiovascular issues.
Though over-the-counter painkillers are used every day by millions of customers without incident, they’re also one of the most abused OTC medications. When taken in high doses, pain relievers can create a calm, relaxed feeling.
But doing so can be extremely dangers. As the Harvard Health blog explains, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs “have potentially dangerous gastrointestinal side effects, including ulcers and bleeding. Kidney and liver damage are possible, too.”
Whether you’re the parent of a teenager or a teenager yourself, it’s likely that you’ve heard of salvia. Also known as Magic Mint or Diviner’s Sage, salvia is an herb that alters the brain’s chemistry, causing hallucinations and distorted views of reality. Though salvia is not illegal, the herb is becoming increasingly monitored on a state level, and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) currently lists it as a drug of concern.
Coricidin is an OTC cold medication for people with high blood pressure. But it’s also frequently abused.
One study published in the journal Integrated Pharmacy Research and Practice found that there was a 60 percent increase in reports of Coricidin abuse from the Texas Poison Center Network from 1998 to 1999, primarily in kids under the age of 18. And a similar study in Illinois found that there were more than 650 cases of Coricidin abuse among minors in the Illinois Poison Center database between 2001 to 2006.
Insomnia-treating medications like Sominex and Nytol are hypnotic drugs that are often recreationally abused, according to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. These sleep aids can make users feel like they’re “high,” but they also have harmful side effects.
A January 2015 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found a link between frequent, long-term use of these medications and an increased risk of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. And for more dangers hiding in plain sight, discover The 50 Deadliest Items in Your Home.
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