The Abuse of Over-the-Counter Drugs


Prescription drugs are the drugs that are licensed for use, and regulations are introduced to necessitate a person to have a prescription from a physician before they are used. Such drugs are safe if used according to the prescription and by the person for whom they have been prescribed. Over-the-counter drugs, on the other hand, are available to people without any prescriptions and are safe as long as they are used in line with the instructions in the packages or when they are used according to the recommendation of a medical professional (Baltazar, Hopkins, & McBridge, 2013). People abuse over-the-counter drugs since they do not perceive the drugs as having negative implications nor do they think they will run into trouble if they use them as their use has been legalized. These drugs are used by many individuals to relieve pain, offset anxiety, and sometimes to give them the feeling of working hard. In reality, over-the-counter medications were designed to treat illnesses; instead many individuals utilize them for non-medical use. This research examines the habit forming factors, potential risks, and possible solutions to overcome the addiction epidemic.

Habit Forming Factors

The manner in which consumers use over-the-counter medications is influenced by a variety of factors, which include: consumer protection, family role and social factors among others (Eaddy, 2013). Factors such as the knowledge on how the drugs should be used, the available regulatory systems, the costs associated with the use of medications, cultural factors and beliefs and communication between the health care professionals and consumers of medications are the contributors to the abuse of the over-the-counter drugs. A description of the habit forming factors has been outlined in the preceding sections.

Consumer Protection

In a number of countries, the national drug regulatory agencies lack enough qualified professionals, financial resources and the necessary equipment to combat the abuse of over-the-counter medications. Consequently, the function of regulating the importation and distribution of these drugs and their sale is not in line with the established standards. This has led to such drugs being dispensed by people who are unqualified or who run inappropriate facilities that are not licensed to offer such services (Hanson, Venturelli, & Fleckenstein, 2014). It is common to find drugs that should be sold according to the prescription of qualified professionals in the markets and open areas. For instance, antibiotics that should have proper instructions for their use on the labels are freely available in the informal sector being sold by hawkers, shop vendors and unlicensed drug stores. Even though such drugs are cheap, they are of poor or unknown quality and are often sold to the consumers with insufficient or no information hence the consumers end up using them irrationally.

The situation is sometimes worsened by the fact that the qualified health professionals are in most cases concentrated in the urban areas. The situation is aggravated to the extent that in some countries 80% of the pharmacies managed by qualified personnel are located in towns. Sometimes to cater for the rural population governments introduce franchise drug stores to be managed by professionals (Lessenger & Veinberg, 2008). However, such shops are limited in number and hence most areas are left at the mercy of the indiscriminate over-the-counter drug vendors.

In some cases, there is lack of communication between professionals in health care and the consumers of the over-the-counter medications. This communication is significant for ensuring rational consumption of medicines. Professionals should offer the name of the medicine, the intended purpose of its use, and the duration for which it should be used. Over-the-counter drugs should be accompanied with properly labeled information so that they are not used inappropriately (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2011).

Family Role

The abuse of over-the-counter drugs among youths is a serious health concern in many countries. This problem has been exacerbated by the fact that there is insufficient parental guidance to children on a rage of matters affecting their lives. An estimated 3.1 million people aged between 13 to 25 years have been engaged in the abuse of over-the-counter drugs in their lifetime. Many more continue to report the abuse of the OTC drugs. Data obtained from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey showed that about one out of every ten youths abuse OTC drugs in a bid to get high (Videurok & King, 2013). Other sets of research have shown that 9.4% of students in high school have abused the OTC drugs at least once in their life.

The main reason for the high rates of abuse of the OTC drugs among the youth is the ease of access with which they acquire the drugs. Youths have easy access to the over-the-counter medications and most of them have the misconception that such drugs are safe and their use is not as dangerous as the use of the illegal drugs. Clearly, there is lack of family advice when it comes to the use of drugs by the youths. Parents have become too busy earning money for survival at the expense of being closer to their children to advise them on life issues. The most common over-the-counter drugs that are mostly abused by youths in their homes are Nyquil at 30.55%, Coricidin at 18.1% and Robitussin at 17.8%. Over-the-counter drugs are seen as the gateway drugs because 81.9% of young people who have abused over-the-counter drugs end up using hard drugs such as marijuana and 44% of them have used hallucinogens and ecstasy (Bigelow & Edgar, 2006).

The common reasons why young people abuse over-the-counter drugs include: enhancing their cognitive functioning, alleviating pain, alleviating sleep disorders, acquiring feelings of sensation, psychologically coping with stress and negative thoughts they may be having and achieving loss of weight. As for the loss of weight, 15% of female students in high school had used diet pills before they reached senior year and a further 55% of them had been using diet pills previously. Such measures to cope with the weight problems mean that young people have not been satisfactorily advised on life issues and hence they end up having a low self-esteem (Eaddy, 2013). The consequence of the lack of self-esteem is that they get advice from their fellows who often misadvise them on what to do.

Familial factors are also known to contribute to youths’ involvement with groups that recommend them to abuse over-the-counter drugs. The risk of the abuse of OTC drugs necessitated by the involvement with bad groups is known to decrease when parents and children have a positive relationship and the parents use an authoritative parenting style in the upbringing of their children. Therefore, positive parenting environment cushions young people from getting involved in such groups and therefore not getting themselves into trouble associated with the drug abuse.

Social Factors

The social factors responsible for the increased risk of the abuse of over-the-counter drugs among adolescents include peer relationships, urge to be popular, bullying and the association of the youth with bad groups. Social factors and family factors always exist simultaneously. The interactions that youth get involved in lead to a complex system of difficult situations that lead to the wrong use of the OTC drugs by adolescents (Eaddy, 2013).

The influence that peers have on adolescents as far as the abuse of OTC drugs is concerned is revealed in the form of deviant peer relationships where the young individuals interact with those who have abused OTC drugs before. Research has shown that deviant peer relationships are responsible for the abuse of over-the-counter drugs among the majority of young people. It is evident that individuals in a deviant group may have similar inclination to use OTC drugs so that they can gain social standing. Social influence is quite significant for young people because of misinformed decision making which is aggravated by the fact that parents do not always advise their children on the right things to do (Bigelow & Edgar, 2006).

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The involvement of young people in deviant groups has been associated with the lack of proper parent-child relationships which makes adolescents want to belong to deviant groups in the places where they live. In some instances, adolescents who live in unstable community environments where people have low income levels and inadequate access to resources are more exposed to the wrong use of over-the-counter drugs.

Peer pressure appears to be gaining of popularity among adolescents and is seen as a contributor to the wrong use of over-the-counter drugs among youths. In particular, the youths believe that they can increase their popularity within a group if they take part in the use of certain over-the-counter drugs. Young people who self-identify as being more popular than others are likely to abuse drugs more than those who are not interested in popularity. In some instances, the social factors surrounding an individual may be so stressing that they may decide to use over-the-counter drugs to alleviate their conditions. It is common for such people to pop-up aspirin, for example, to induce sleep when they feel that the problems are weighing down on them (Lessenger & Feinberg, 2008). Other young people may use painkillers as a way of dealing with their adverse conditions.

Potential Risks

There are a many potential risks associated with the abuse of over-the-counter drugs. People who start using OTC drugs non-medically at a tender age are most likely to be diagnosed with having lifetime dependence on the drugs according to some survey which was carried out on United States households. The survey also showed that about 42% of those who had used OTC drugs non-medically at the age of 13 or at an age below that went on to develop prescription drug addiction (DSM-IV criteria) in comparison with those who had used the drugs non-medically for the first time at the age of 21 or above (Eaddy, 2013).

Abusive Behaviors

Abusive behaviors related to the use of over-the-counter drugs tend to vary in scope. People of all ages as early as thirteen years old adopt the non-medical use of over-the-counter drugs. For example, people tend to develop a pill-popping culture where an individual may perceive life issues as problematic and treat them with medications. Such individuals may easily take painkillers in case of a slight headache and continue the use of these drugs for a long time. Such drugs may be those taken from relatives who were using the same medications for other ailments. In some instances, people tend to use some of the over-the-counter drugs to control their lifestyles including the control of obesity, enhancing of sexual performance and the control of stress related conditions. People tend to use these drugs to take control over any existing life condition (Hanson et al., 2014). Incarcerated criminals are more likely to use legalized prescription drugs that are available over-the-counter than anybody else. Patients suffering from acute or chronic pain are more likely to use opiate medication for their own satisfaction which is not in line with the way that they are advised to use them by health care professionals. The abuse of these drugs has a number of outcomes on the users as is described in the following section.


The outcomes for the abuse of over-the-counter drugs are classified as long term and short term outcomes depending on the duration of their effects on the individual after their consumption. Long-term outcomes include death or a permanent impact on the individual so that they are not able to carry out their daily duties while the short term outcomes are not so adverse; however, they have considerable impact on the life of the user (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2011).

Long term outcomes. A large one-time dose of opioid could lead to respiratory depression that can result into death. At the same time, a long term use of the drug may result into physical dependence and addiction. During the first instances of taking in a depressant that is aimed at cooling the central nervous system a person may feel sleepy and may lack coordination for doing things if the dose that an individual has taken is too high. Nevertheless, as their body becomes used to the impacts of the drugs when they stop taking the drug they would not feel the same (Lessenger & Feinberg, 2008). If psychoactive drugs are taken for a considerable period and more so when taken in high doses and regularly, a person may develop tolerance for the drugs which may result in the urge to take more quantities of the drugs so as to experience similar effects that they are used to.

The continued use of the drugs can result into physical dependence as one’s physiological adaptation to the continued regular use of the OTC drugs and subsequent discontinuance of the use of the drugs may result into withdrawal symptoms. If a psychoactive drug is used for a relatively long period of time, the adaptation of the brain changes to the ever present feeling generated by the drug which is some sort of a physiological dependence and when an individual ceases to take the drug at once, they may become hyperactive which may result into seizures when the drug is a sedative hypnotic. The sudden stoppage of the use of such drugs may also lead to a number of harmful physical and psychological consequences for the individual (Baltazar et al., 2013).

Short term outcomes. The continued regular use of some stimulants over a short duration of time may result into feelings of hostility or an individual becoming paranoid. However, these stimulants when used in high doses can lead to dangerous increase in the body temperature and may result into failure of the cardiovascular system or in some cases may lead to lethal seizures.

The use of over-the-counter drugs for non-medical purposes further complicates the use of prescription drugs whenever a person gets sick so that a person has to be treated with the use of the same drugs. Apart from the presence of the active drugs in the body of an individual, such medications may lead to problems when the drugs are injected into the body system (Eaddy, 2013). In some cases, especially when these drugs are used in groups, there is a risk of being infected with blood-borne diseases such as HIV, hepatitis B and C. These diseases are dangerous and may cause death in the absence of proper medication for some of them while some like HIV are incurable.

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The abuse of OTC drugs has placed a considerable burden on the United States health care system. Such burden results from the increase in the number of drug users who visit the health care institutions because of their use of narcotic pain relievers. In these cases, most people become hospitalized after they have been poisoned by opioids (Bigelow & Edgar, 2006). Such burden is likely to cause a temporary harm to the treatment of other patients in a given hospital or health care station. There is also a likelihood of addiction caused by the use of these drugs which in fact is quite hard to manage.

Possible Solutions

There should be made concerted efforts by everyone who is concerned about the use of drugs to eliminate the abuse of these drugs because their use has considerable negative impacts on people some of which are irreversible. These solutions may take two forms which are the adoption of prevention methods and the raising of drug awareness among the populations so that people undertake the necessary procedures while handling over-the-counter drugs (Baltazar et al., 2013).

Prevention Methods

Prevention methods for the control of the abuse of over-the-counter drugs are numerous and the relevant stakeholders in health care delivery should take part in the control of the menace. Such methods like the control of the sale of drugs through online means and the control of access to these drugs by the relevant authorities may help to bring sanity to the health care sector (Eaddy, 2013).

Social media. The purchase of over-the-counter drugs is sometimes done online and this practice is often associated with the abuse of such drugs. While it may be beneficial to purchase pharmaceuticals through the internet and more so in places where hospitals and pharmacies are widely available, rogue internet pharmacists may take advantage of the situation and encourage the use of these drugs among the most vulnerable groups of people. In the United States, for instance, the abuse of over-the-counter drugs has risen among the youth since 2002 and it was reported that over 34 illegal internet pharmacists sold over 98 million doses of products that contained hydrocodone in the year 2006 and in this regard, 84% of the cases did not require valid proof for prescription in order to be allowed to purchase the drugs (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2011).The government should, therefore, take a strong stand in the control of these illegal purchases of drugs online as it contributes to the wrongful purchase and use of the OTC drugs which is likely to have a negative impact on people.

Parenting role. Parents should enhance their role of taking care of their children so that children do not get the opportunity to associate with wrong groups of people who will most likely make them get involved in the abuse of over-the-counter drugs. It has been proven that some of the instances where young adults abuse OTC drugs result from being introduced into the vices by their friends who have used such drugs before (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2011). Further, parents themselves should be role models to their children by ensuring that they do not abuse those drugs themselves because their abuse of the drugs may be copied by their children.

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