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    Intentional Misuse of Over-the-Counter Medication: What You Should Know

    While prescription medication such as opioids or stimulants has captured much attention during the recent addiction epidemic, the intentional misuse of over-the-counter (OTC) medication among young people is still a serious issue. Misuse occurs when a medication is not taken as directed, which could mean taking a higher quantity than instructed or using it for a nonmedical purpose.

    Why does it happen

    Young people misuse OTC medications for a variety of reasons.[1]

    Limited knowledge & lack of awareness

    OTC medications are accessible without a prescription and readily available at home, and many young people are not aware that OTC medications can be dangerous when misused. However, just like prescription medication, when OTC medications aren’t used as directed, they can be dangerous. Risky and intentional misuse can result in serious injury or death.

    Young people have limited knowledge of the associated risks of OTC medicines. Unreliable sources, such as peers and social media, may provide false information that promotes risky behaviors.

    Ease of access

    OTC medications are safe, effective and accessible without a prescription. They are intended to be readily available at home and have specific directions, warnings and other information on packaging and labels. OTC medication can be easier to access than prescription medication or illegal drugs.

    When sick, it’s not uncommon for adolescents to dose themselves. Parent modeling plays a role as well. If parents dispense a pill for every symptom or ache, children may begin to believe that more medicine is better and carries little risk.

    Social validation

    Medications containing DPH or cough medicine containing DXM are often promoted on social media and among young people as offering a “trip” or “high.” Some kids may intentionally misuse OTC medication in response to their sadness or boredom. For others, it’s to seek attention or validation, especially in the case of social media.

    Increased risk in adolescents

    Adolescents are more likely to misuse than younger children. Their increasing independence, coupled with the ongoing development of the areas of their brain that manage impulse control, judgment and decision-making, contribute to this risk. Additionally, misusing OTC medications may serve as a substitute for some individuals who are addicted to another substance but can’t obtain it.

    Teens’ natural desire to experiment and act impulsively can fan the flames for intentional misuse.

    What you can do

    Despite the validation they might receive from peers when misusing OTC medication in social media challenges, teens report that knowledge of the serious consequences would make them reconsider engaging in dangerous online challenges related to OTC medication.[2]

    It’s important to talk with your child about substances, and keep talking. Be sure that you’re including OTC medication when discussing the dangers of drugs or alcohol.

    As a parent, you are one of the most influential forces in your child’s life. You can significantly impact their decision on whether or not to misuse medication.

    Possible signs of OTC misuse

    There are signs to look for if you suspect someone has intentionally misused OTC medicine:

    • Empty medicine boxes or packaging in the trash
    • Purchase or use of large amounts of medicine when not sick
    • Purchase of medicine online or in store
    • Missing packages of medicine from home medicine cabinets
    • Changes in friends, physical appearance or sleeping or eating patterns
    • Loss of interest in hobbies or favorite activities


    To help prevent intentional misuse:

    • Keep OTC medications out of the reach of children and teens, and dispose of all expired and unwanted medications safely.
    • When your child requires the use of OTC medication, instruct them on how to use it properly and monitor their use.
    • Be clear with teens about the risks associated with intentional misuse.
    • When you need to use OTC medication, model how to use it appropriately according to directions on the label.
    • Try to demonstrate that medicine is a last resort when feeling pain or discomfort. Think about ways to more safely reduce the symptoms you might otherwise address with OTC medications. A nap or a walk outside, a cup of hot tea or taking a hot shower are just a few ideas.

    The key to having a productive conversation with your child about OTC medication is to get to the “why.” Why are they interested in using it? This will help you talk about what’s really at stake. You can offer your child alternative opportunities that offer validation, excitement, relaxation, de-stressing or whatever other means of rewarding activity they seek.

    Finally, meet your child “where they are.” Together, you can work to “solve” for any social or mental health issues they may be facing. This is one of the best ways to prevent them from misusing OTC medication.

    Helpful resources

    Learn more about what you can do to help prevent or address teen misuse of prescription or over-the-counter medications.

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