Over-the-counter (OTC) drugs are medicines that you can get without a prescription from a physician. Most commonly, OTC drugs are purchased at a pharmacy or supermarket. If taken as directed, OTC drugs are typically safe, helping to minimize or alleviate many symptoms or ailments.

However, as with any drug, there’s the potential for abuse and perhaps even an addiction. As such, if you’re abusing OTC drugs, you’re at risk for health problems, including cardiovascular issues, kidney failure, stomach ulcers, memory loss, and death.

Commonly abused OTC drugs include:


The acetaminophen in pain relievers like Tylenol helps to minimize pain. Some people may abuse pain relievers due to chronic pain, which can cause liver damage.


The dextromethorphan (DXM) in cough medicine helps to suppress coughs. However, taking large quantities, or abusing them, can lead to serious health issues. Youths are attracted to abusing cough suppressants because the medications are easy to get. Abusing them can lead to a feeling of being high and cause hallucinations.


The active ingredient in cold medicine is pseudoephedrine, which is a stimulant. Taking larger quantities can cause someone to feel extra stimulated, alert, and a bit euphoric.


The active ingredient in motion sickness pills is dimenhydrinate. When taken in large doses, these pills can cause an altered perception of reality because of their psychedelic properties.


Some people abuse laxatives or diuretics in an attempt to lose weight.

What Are Over-the-Counter Withdrawal Symptoms?

OTC medications that are being abused can change the chemistry of the brain over time. If you’re abusing any OTC drug, chances are you’re building a tolerance to that drug. This means that when you try to stop taking it, your body will go through withdrawal, which can leave you feeling some uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms.

Common withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Cravings
  • Confusion
  • Increased anxiety
  • Agitation
  • Mood changes

What Are the Stages of Over-the-Counter Drug Withdrawal Timeline?

Regardless of the type of OTC drug you become addicted to, you’ll have to undergo detox to end addiction. The time it takes to go through withdrawal can vary from person to person depending on various factors, such as:

  • Type of OTC drug
  • How frequently the drug(s) is being used
  • The dosage
  • Method of ingestion
  • History of addiction or relapse
  • Overall health condition
  • Age
  • Metabolism
  • Mental health condition
  • How supportive the environment is

Typical OTC Withdrawal Stages

It’s tough to gauge the withdrawal time frame for otc drugs, as each one may have a different timeline. Regardless of the OTC drug being abused, it’s recommended that users consult a doctor or addiction specialist before stopping the use of the drug. Stopping abruptly or cold turkey can put you in great danger.

A professional can likely help you come up with a detox program that will help you safely get off the OTC you’ve been abusing. Some medications may require weaning off them so that you don’t have severe withdrawal symptoms.

For some, it might take a few days of going through uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. This likely pertains to those who have a mild addiction. For others who have a more serious addiction, it might take two to three weeks. The first few days usually pose the most severe or intense withdrawal symptoms and then decrease slowly as the days go on.

The best protocol is to reach out to an addiction specialist or professional, licensed treatment center to consult about the particular OTC drug being abused. Don’t allow the fear of not knowing to keep you from discussing the detox phase and continued treatment.

Why Should I Detox?

When the body gets used to a drug, the brain automatically craves more. When you stop taking that drug, the brain kind of goes into “chaos” mode, wondering where that drug is. It’s the survival part of the brain, and to get back to a balanced state, you must abstain from taking the drug, enduring the withdrawal symptoms.

Regardless of the type of OTC drug used, it’s not recommended to detox “cold turkey” at home. This can be dangerous. Rather, you should consult with a physician or addiction specialist who can help you detox safely. You also have the opportunity to detox in a medical detox facility or inpatient treatment center.

What Is the Next Treatment Step?

OTC addiction requires detoxification and addiction treatment. It’s not enough just to go through the detox stage. Sure, this rids the body of the toxins associated with the drug, but it doesn’t necessarily deal with any underlying issues that may be going on, such as anxiety or depression. And, to prevent a relapse, it’s normally necessary to learn effective relapse prevention skills under the care of trained substance abuse professionals.

You have various options when it comes to OTC drug rehabs.  There are inpatient, outpatient, and intensive outpatient programs (IOP) to choose from.


Inpatient treatment requires that you leave home and reside at the facility for the duration of treatment, which could be 30, 60, 90, or more days. You’ll be surrounded by addiction specialists, a psychiatrist to address any mental health needs, and a physician. You’ll be monitored around the clock, and you will attend classes and group sessions that can help you learn valuable life skills.


Outpatient treatment offers the same type of addiction treatment with the exception that you live at home rather than live at the facility during the duration of treatment. You may attend anywhere from three to seven sessions per week, depending on your needs. Then, as you progress in your recovery, you can decrease the number of sessions.


An intensive outpatient program (IOP) is a program that fits between inpatient and outpatient. It’s a step down from inpatient that allows you to live at home, but it also allows you to receive a large number of treatment hours per week.  Usually, this means 12 or more hours per week, but this number will vary according to your needs.

All three options are wonderful for getting you started on a good recovery track.  With the support and tools you learn, your chances of staying off the drugs and living a fulfilling life increase greatly. Once you’ve completed your addiction treatment, you can always continue with support via individual counseling and/or support groups in your community such as Narcotics Anonymous or SMART Recovery.

Start Your Journey To Recovery Today

If you or a loved one are struggling with OTC addiction, know that there is treatment available. Please give us a call and allow us to help you navigate your recovery path. We’ll answer any questions you may have and help you determine what treatment modality will best serve you and your particular situation.

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