Over the counter and prescription medication – potential to abuse?

Over the counter (OTC) drugs are medicines that are sold to the consumer with no need to provide a prescription or advice from medical professionals, whereas prescription drugs require valid proof from a medical professional to obtain them. Both are legal and require the individual to administer themselves following the clear guidelines provided with it.

Can these types of medication be abused?

There is a misconception that OTC and prescription medication are completely safe – in fact, quite a lot of these medications have abusive potential. With most medications provided under the advice of a medical professional, there is a false sense of security, and the drugs can only do good. However, taking too much or taking the medication for too long can often lead to an addiction quickly developing.

Commonly abused medications include strong painkillers, sleep aids, anti-depressants and cough medicines, these are usually to cure or reduce the level of pain for an ailment or injury. In addition, the volume of anti-depressants alone has doubled in the last decade (British Medical Journal), therefore heightening the potential risk of abuse.

Commonly abused medication


Co-codamol / Oxycodone / Fentanyl / Tramadol / Vicodin

Sleeping aids

Barbiturates / Valium / Benzodiazepines


Valium / Diazepam / Benzodiazepine / Xanax

Cough medicines

Dextromethorphan (DXM)

How does prescription and OTC medication be abused?

One of the main reasons abuse happens is the ease of access, both legitimately and illegitimately, and the normality of seeing tablets and cough syrups being consumed. Identifying an addiction to over-the-counter medication can be difficult as they don’t possess the same dangerous connotations as illicit substances such as Heroin or Cocaine.

The problem with these medications is the body quickly creates a tolerance to certain dosages, therefore demanding more to provide the same relief. Due to the belief that the medication is safe, the user may see no problem in taking more than their suggested amount.

Unfortunately, this is how easy it is to abuse medication and can end up in a dependent addiction. Users will not often realise the extent of their dependence until their administered course runs out or stops.

What to look out for

There are many signs to look for in friends and colleagues:

  • Erratic changes in behaviour
  • Appearing drowsy or overly energised
  • Neglecting responsibilities
  • Withdrawn and distant from social settings
  • Impaired co-ordination and disorientation
  • Slurred speech
  • Seizures and collapsing

Long term impacts of addiction to medication

Prolonged abuse of over the counter and prescription drugs can create a variety of permanently lasting or long-term issues, these may include:

  • Severe damage to nearly every organ
  • Impairment to cognitive functions
  • Heart problems
  • Breathing problems
  • Isolation from society
  • Relationship breakdowns
  • Poor performance and job loss
  • Financial difficulty
  • Homelessness
  • Paranoia
  • Suicidal thoughts and impulses

How to prevent misuse

Preventing the addiction in the first instance can be a key step in reducing misuse for yourself and those around you. It can be done in many ways:

  • Strictly following the directions as explained on labels or by the medical professional
  • Understanding the risk of mixing multiple medications together as well as including alcohol
  • Not changing dosage or stopping without discussion with a medical professional
  • Never use OTC medication without medical advice or being prescribed
  • Store prescription stimulants, sedatives, and opioids safely

Being aware of the risks of abuse can help provide a safer environment for everyone, being able to highlight or prevent it will ensure the safety of those at risk of misuse and everyone around them. If you have any concerns or issues with over the counter or prescription medication, contact your GP and discuss the treatment they can provide to help.

For more information on how we can test for substances of abuse contact our dedicated accounts team.

E-mail: testingservices@randox.com

Phone: +44 (0) 28 9445 1011

Web: www.randoxtestingservices.com