Are Over-the-Counter Medications Safer Because You Don’t Need a Prescription?

7 min read · 3 sections

Though over-the-counter medicines usually offer the perception of safety because they are so readily available, certain dangers present, particularly when someone misuses these substances. When a person takes large doses or mixes certain over-the-counter medications with prescription drugs, illicit drugs, or alcohol, the risk of harmful effects increases. Many people develop a problematic pattern of abuse known as addiction. Fortunately, professional addiction interventions including detoxification, rehabilitation, and aftercare are available to help you quit abusing over-the-counter medications.

What Are Over-the-Counter Drugs?

Over-the-counter (OTC) drugs are everywhere. You may frequently encounter some of these medicines on store shelves and home medicine cabinets. If you can walk into a grocery store, pharmacy, or gas station and buy a drug that promises to treat the symptoms of an illness or problem, it is likely an OTC medicine.1

Available OTC medications are too numerous to name individually. Many are designed to treat what ails you—easing the impact of a common health conditions by managing unwanted symptoms, such as:1

  • Pain.
  • Headaches.
  • Cough and colds.

  • Diarrhea.
  • Constipation.
  • Allergies.

Some OTC medications promise a way to improve certain traits or abilities as a way to achieve your personal goals. People seeking these benefits may take OTC drugs for the purpose of boosting concentration, accelerating weight loss, or increasing energy.

Recently, as some states have added restrictions for certain medications that were previously available over-the-counter, another group of medicines emerged that exists between prescription and over-the-counter drugs. Called “behind-the-counter,” these drugs may be found in a different location of the pharmacy and require identification in order to purchase limited amounts.1 Still, no prescription is needed.

Are They Safe?

In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tests and reviews all drugs. Only the safest medicines are allowed to be designated as OTC.2

Generally, OTC medicines are safe and effective when used to treat the intended condition or set of symptoms. When taking a new OTC medicine, always read the label to understand what the medication is, what it does, and how to use it. Consult your doctor to identify any special risks or dangers you may encounter by using the medication or giving the drug to someone else, especially children.

Despite the overall safety of OTC medications, not all of them are safe in all situations.2 Some OTC drugs produce unpredictable side effects or allergic reactions resulting in trouble breathing. OTC drugs may be contraindicated for use in people with certain medical conditions and can also interact negatively with foods, drinks, supplements, and other medicines to produce a variety of dangerous effects.2

The associated risks from OTC medicines increase dramatically when a person misuses them. OTC drug abuse happens when someone:1

Takes the drug in ways other than directed on the package by:

  • Using too much.
  • Using too often.
  • Using in a different method than directed, such as crushing and snorting or dissolving in water and injecting.
  • Intentionally mixes the drug with other substances to amplify the effects.
  • Takes the drug only to get high from it.

It may seem odd for a person to abuse a simple OTC medicine, but some drugs contain active ingredients that cause psychoactive effects and thus, have a serious potential for misuse.1

Some may mistakenly believe this practice is safer than using illicit or prescription drugs, but all substance abuse carries severe risks to your mental and physical health.1 You should only take medicines to treat your symptoms and only as directed by your doctor.

The challenge for parents or other loved ones of someone who could be abusing OTC drugs is understanding how misuse can be dangerous, knowing the warning signs of abuse, and helping the user get treatment. With this information, you can react in educated and purposeful ways to prevent and reduce harm.

Common OTC Medications of Abuse

Since OTC drug abuse is always changing and evolving, this list may vary in your particular community. Continue seeking local information about the drug trends and effects of the abused substances from trusted sources like physicians and drug abuse experts.

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