Over-the-counter drugs, commonly called OTC drugs, are prevalent, easy to obtain, and easy to use. They are also easily misused and abused for those who want a quick “legal” high. But that high comes with some hazardous withdrawal symptoms that can sometimes be fatal.

OTC medications can be purchased without a prescription. They include cold and cough medicine, diet pills, diarrhea, and constipation medicine.

There are ingredients in them that can wreak real trouble for the body if taken in greater amounts than recommended.

OTC drugs are not safer to use than prescription drugs to get high. This is a common myth.

Most Commonly Abused OTC Medicines

The top two most abused OTC drugs are DMX (dextromethorphan) and loperamide.

DXM is found in extra-strength cough medicines. It can be swallowed in its usual form (cough or cold syrup, capsules) or mixed with soda for flavor in what users call “robo-tripping” or “skittling.” There are those who inject it also, and it is usually taken at parties where marijuana and alcohol are available.

When too much is taken at once, it can have a depressant effect and sometimes a hallucinogenic effect. Users have reported a range of experiences from feeling like they are looking outside at their bodies to loss of motor control. People who abuse it might also feel agitated, paranoid, and/or aggressive.

Loperamide is an ingredient in anti-diarrheal medication that comes in tablet, capsule, or liquid forms. It is usually taken in large quantities when being abused and acts like an opioid giving the user a euphoric feeling.

Other OTC drugs that are available with some degree of ease are:


Pseudoephedrine – An ingredient in nasal decongestants sold as small tablets in blister packs. It is usually sold behind the counter in pharmacies. It is a highly sought ingredient in making meth. However, the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005 banned the sale of any anti-decongestant medicine that included pseudoephedrine for that reason. The Act limits how much can be sold, requires ID to purchase it, and pharmacies must keep a log of those who buy it.


Dimenhydrinate – It is found in motion sickness OTC drugs like Dramamine™. When taken in high doses, it can cause delirium, psychotropic visions, and hallucinations. People who abuse it can also experience confusion and amnesia. Motion sickness medicine can be bought in pharmacies, grocery stores, and convenience stores. It is very easily accessible for people who need it for legitimate reasons and those who want to get high.


Diphenhydramine – This is an antihistamine found in anti-itch medicine like Benadryl and sleep aid medicine such as ZzzQuil™. Both OTC medicines are known to cause drowsiness. People who abuse medicine with this ingredient might experience mild euphoria. If someone stops taking it suddenly, they could have worsened sleeplessness, a runny nose, irritability, restlessness, abdominal cramps, sweating and/or diarrhea.

Withdrawal Symptoms From OTC Drugs

Withdrawal symptoms from OTC drugs will vary in intensity depending on the user’s age, personal health, dosage amounts taken, length of time taken, and the OTC drug taken.

If someone has been abusing these medicines for a while, they might encounter these physical and psychological symptoms:

  • Confusion
  • Agitation
  • Strong cravings for the drug
  • Increased anxiety
  • Mood changes

OTC Withdrawal Timeline

OTC drug withdrawal can be discomforting. How long the withdrawal symptoms last depends on how long someone was abusing them and what specific medicine was being abused. Nonetheless, here is an approximate timetable to use as a guide:

6 to 30 hours after last using: Withdrawal symptoms start after the drug was last taken. Users should expect to feel chills, be anxious, be fatigued, or have body aches. They also may have insomnia or feel depressed.

72+ hours and after: The worst of the symptoms kick in. Users can expect to experience:

  • Abdominal cramping
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Dilated pupils

Keep in mind, the first week of OTC drug withdrawal will be the most difficult to get through. Once through this phase, there are positive, useful therapies that are beneficial to gaining freedom from over-the-counter drug addiction.

OTC Drug Addiction Treatment

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) states no medication can relieve an OTC drug abuser of withdrawal symptoms. However, there are evidence-based forms of treatment that can be beneficial in understanding the thoughts and behavior toward drug use.

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