Nightmare in Your Medicine Cabinet: How OTC Drugs Threaten Young Adults

by Daniel D. Maurer

When most people think of “drug addiction” they think of the hard stuff. Heroin. Meth. Cocaine. Pharmaceuticals like Adderall or benzodiazepines. And yeah, even pot.

But you may not realize that there are other mind-altering chemicals a person can even obtain over-the-counter!

Addicts are clever people. I’m one of them. I used the Internet extensively and frequently in my active addiction. That meant that—clickity, clickity, click—I was always looking for ways to get off. And no, I’m not talking about smoking banana peels (which doesn’t work, by the way—don’t ask me how I know.)

Rest assured, I’m not writing this list to give anyone the idea to try this crap out. It’s not healthy, for one. But many of the OTC drugs and methods of getting high also aren’t that fun, anyway. I simply want to inform you that this stuff is out there. A dedicated and creative addict is going to try some of things, and you need to know both the risks and the damaging effects these chemicals can have on a person’s mind and body.

First, The Stuff

The following is a list of OTC medications or other easy-to-obtain substances that can have mind-altering effects. Note that this list does not include drugs recently scheduled by the FDA:

  • Benadryl® (diphenhydramine – allergy medicine)
  • Various cold medications containing DXM (dextromethorphan – often found in cough syrups)
  • Motion-sickness pills (dimenhydrinate)
  • Medications containing pseudoephedrine (Not technically OTC because you have to request it from a pharmacist. However, it is easily obtainable in limited packages.)
  • Nutmeg (In high doses can become psychoactive)
  • Doxylamine (Brand name Unisom®)
  • Propylhexedrine (Brand name Benzedrex®)
  • Kava Root (A weak psychoactive root from the Pacific)

Why It’s Not a Very Good Idea to Try This Crap

Remember when I told you that addicts can be clever and creative? Yeah. Well, that was me. Except for Kava, I’ve tried everything on the list you see above and a few more than have since been scheduled by the FDA. Let me tell you, it’s not very fun to abuse these medication. It can be outright dangerous too. Here’s why:

  • Many of the drugs listed above are not packaged as drugs only with that ingredient. Since a person has to take the medication in “overdose” to actually get an effect, that means that you’ll also be overdosing on all the other chemicals that particular mixture contains. This can be incredibly reckless—especially so in the case of another drug, acetaminophen. Also known by its brand name Tylenol® or generic APAP (or Paracetamol), acetaminophen is completely safe for most individuals in the doses manufacturers recommend. However, when you go above those dosages, an alternate system to rid your body of this chemical kicks in within your liver. The metabolite it produces is extremely toxic. The risk goes up even more if the person has been abusing alcohol.[i] So yeah. That cold medicine can kill you.
  • The drugs listed above aren’t that safe themselves. Take diphenhydramine, an allergy medication. Abusers of this drug will not only acquire a wicked dry mouth that lasts for days; they’ll also risk undergoing a complete collapse of mental functioning. What’s more, in high enough doses, the abuser will totally black out, not forming new memories what they did while “high” on the drug. Other drugs such as nutmeg (I know, right? Never thought this would be on a list.) create a miserable “high” that makes a person feel like they got the flu for three to four days. Take even more, it can cause kidney or liver damage.
  • Lastly, the FDA is continually playing catch up to schedule drugs appropriately so that people won’t have the opportunity to easily abuse them. Back in the day when I was playing around, I abused Tramadol, a weak opiate. At the time, you could get it with a simple Internet prescription. However, now the FDA has scheduled it so this loophole is closed. (Good thing, too. In overdose, this one causes seizures. And yeah, I had those and continued using—addiction is crazy!) Other drugs like pseudoephedrine aren’t especially psychoactive in their own right, but serve as precursors (stuff you make other drugs with) to produce methamphetamine and other harder drugs.

The point behind informing you is to let you know what ends addicts will go to, just to get high. The kicker is many of these drugs are not just damaging in their own right if they’re abused, they often lead a person to the stuff they really want to get such as opioids or illegal stimulants.

The good news is that the gift of recovery continues to keep on giving. Help is available and you or someone you care about does not have to keep chasing after a high that really doesn’t deliver in the long run anyway. Believe me when I tell you, it’s worth it, because you are worth it!

If you or a loved one are struggling with an addiction and are seeking treatment, we would love to talk with you and see how we can help you. PLEASE CALL (855) 430-9426. Our counselors are available to guide you through the process.

Daniel D. Maurer is a freelance writer openly living in long-term recovery. He is the author of Sobriety: A Graphic Novel, a Hazelden Publishing, youth and young adult resource. Daniel is currently working on his fourth book, which covers the topic of resiliency. He lives with his family in Saint Paul, Minnesota. For more information on Dan and his work, visit his website and blog at Transformation is Real.

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