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:


To help prevent intentional misuse:

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