Prescription and OTC Drug Abuse

Nearly everyone in the nation agrees: Prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) drug abuse is at epidemic levels. The two represent what a doctor prescribes (prescription medicine) and what you can buy without a doctor’s prescription (OTC). Both have immediate and long-term consequences. The consequences can be serious, even deadly.

The most commonly abused prescription drugs are opioids. These include codeine, hydrocodone, morphine, oxycodone, hydromorphone, and Fentanyl. These are known as pain medicines. They are prescribed by doctors for pain related to surgery, chronic medical conditions, and dental procedures. Opioid addiction can happen after just a week of use. The risk for long-term opioid abuse increases after only 5 days of taking the medicine. Some people who have taken opioids for a week are still taking them a year later. Current thinking encourages doctors to limit opioid prescriptions to just 3 days. After 3 days, doctors encourage patients to use OTC pain medicine, such as Tylenol. Other prescription medicines that are abused include sedatives (to sleep), tranquilizers (to relax), and stimulants (to stay awake).

OTC drug abuse also is common. OTC medicine treats a variety of things. These include coughs, colds, pain, constipation, fluid build-up, and more. The most commonly abused OTC medicines include cough syrups and anti-diarrheal medicines. Other abuse involves taking OTC medicine for weight loss that is not designed for that purpose. This includes abusing laxatives, diuretics, and OTC diet pills. People abuse OTC medicine to get high or they take more than the allowed dosage to treat their symptoms.

Path to improved well being

There are important steps you or a family member can take to reduce the risk of prescription and OTC drug abuse.

Preventing prescription drug abuse:

  • Plan ahead. Talk to your doctor about treating pain if you or a family member have a surgery planned. By sharing your concerns, your doctor can limit your prescription or suggest using an OTC pain medicine first. He or she may have other suggestions, as well.
  • Tell your doctor if you or a family member has a history of substance abuse.
  • Follow dosing instructions. Do not take more than prescribed.
  • Do not take another person’s prescription medicine. Do not share your medicine with others.
  • Do not take the medicine in another form (crushing and snorting or injecting).
  • Do not take prescription medicine for another reason (to get high).
  • If you have chronic pain from a medical condition, seek alternative pain relief. This may involve working with a physical therapist for special exercises.
  • Safely store prescription medicines away from children, teens, and others.
  • Properly dispose of old opioid medicines. Look for locked and secured bins designed for this. Some pharmacies and many police departments have the bins onsite. Look for “drug take back” days in your community. These are special days you can go to stores and other areas to drop off your old medicines. They are staffed by police.
  • Do not mix prescription medicine with alcohol.
  • Understand that there may be drug interactions when taking more than one prescription medicine.

Preventing OTC drug abuse:

  • Follow dosing instructions. Do not take more than prescribed.
  • Do not take the medicine in another form (crushing and snorting or injecting).
  • Do not take OTC medicine for another reason (to get high, to lose weight, etc.).
  • If you have chronic pain from a medical condition, seek alternative pain relief. This may involve working with a physical therapist for special exercises. Too much OTC pain medicine can permanently damage your kidneys.
  • Throw away expired medicines.
  • Understand drug interactions. You should not combine certain OTC medicines.

Things to consider

Opioid addiction is a risk factor for heroin use, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. No matter what you are addicted to, drug abuse almost always leads to problems at work, with family and in your personal relationships. It also can lead to long-term health consequences, even death.

Certain risk factors are associated with prescription drug abuse. These include:

  • Low income.
  • Unemployment.
  • Personal or family history of substance abuse.
  • Young age of onset.
  • Criminal history or legal problems (including DUIs).
  • Associating with others who are substance abusers.
  • A history of family or job conflicts.
  • Thrill-seeking behavior.
  • Tobacco use.
  • Depression or anxiety.
  • High stress.
  • Female gender.

Abusing OTC medicine can lead to serious health problems. These can include memory loss, kidney failure, heart problems, even death. High doses of cough syrup can have serious side effects. Side effects may include slowed or irregular breathing, passing out, extreme drowsiness, muscle spasms, heart palpitations/rapid heart rate, blood pressure swings, blurred vision, vomiting, and brain damage.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • How do I know if I am predisposed to an addiction?
  • What can I do if OTC medicine is not helping my pain?
  • What are the signs of prescription and OTC abuse?
  • Is it okay to drive a car while taking prescription and OTC pain medicine?