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OTC Drug Withdrawal: Learn the Timeline, Symptoms, Detox

When people think of addiction, they often think of alcohol or illegal drugs, or possibly addiction to prescription drugs, like opioid painkillers. But it’s also possible to become addicted to certain over-the-counter (OTC) drugs. These drugs are legal and easily obtainable, even for teens and adolescents. Plus, they are affordable (or even “free” if a teen finds them in the home).

They often are perceived as a “safe” way to get high since they’re legal and don’t require a prescription. But abusing them can be dangerous and even deadly. Over-the-counter drug withdrawal symptoms can be uncomfortable and difficult, just like withdrawing from many other drugs.  

How Over-the-Counter Drugs Affect the Brain

The types of OTC drugs that some people become addicted to often contain opioid-like components. Examples of some of these drugs include cough medicines, decongestants, allergy medications, antihistamines, dietary supplements or laxatives, and motion sickness medications.

Opioids are powerful drugs that can change how the brain works. What makes opioids so powerful? They bind to opioid (mu) receptors in the brain, which increase the release of dopamine that binds to dopamine receptors in the brain, causing a pleasurable reward response, which usually occurs as a result of important life activities like eating and sex. Opioid-like substances are not so potent but act in a similar manner.Even though the opioid-like components aren’t as powerful as prescription opioids or illegal opiates, they can still cause similar mind-altering effects. In addition, regular misuse of OTC drugs can lead to developing a dependence on the drug. As this recreational use continues, the brain chemistry is changing, which causes the forming of a tolerance to the drug and a higher amount of substance is needed to feel the same effect.. At this point, the brain has become dependent on the drug.  The larger doses can cause a possible overdose on over-the-counter medications.

What You Can Expect from Over-the-Counter Drug Withdrawal

Because many of the OTC drugs that are abused contain opioid-like ingredients, over-the-counter drug withdrawal symptoms are similar to most symptoms of opioid withdrawal. OTC drug containing opioid-like components can cause uncomfortable, but not life-threatening withdrawal symptoms. Opioid withdrawal symptoms usually begin about six to 30 hours after last using the drug. Opioid withdrawal symptoms can vary in severity and may include:

Early symptoms include:

  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Body aches
  • Cravings
  • Increased tear production
  • Insomnia
  • Muscle and bone pain
  • Runny nose
  • Sweating
  • Excessive yawning

Later symptoms include:

  • Abdominal cramping
  • Diarrhea
  • Dilated pupils
  • Goosebumps
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

Over-the-Counter Drug Withdrawal Timeline

Because many abused OTC drugs contain opioids, the withdrawal timeline for these substances is similar to the timeline for opioid withdrawal.

Withdrawal symptoms usually start within six to 30 hours after last using. The worst of the symptoms occur at about 72 hours after the last dose. The first week of over-the-counter drug withdrawal symptoms is typically the most difficult. However, symptoms can last up to about a month. They may even continue for a few months after use of the drug has stopped.

During the first few hours of over-the-counter drug withdrawal, symptoms may include:

  • Anxiety or agitation
  • Muscle pain 
  • Aching body
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Sweating

Over the next few days of the withdrawal process, you may encounter more symptoms, including:

  • Chills
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Stomach pain

Some symptoms may continue for a month or longer. Withdrawal symptoms that may linger often include anxiety, depression, fatigue, and insomnia. 

What Are the OTC Drug Withdrawal Treatment Steps?

A full continuum of treatment ensures the best opportunity for a successful recovery. Following a full continuum of treatment means starting with the medical detox process and then progressing gradually from an inpatient status to outpatient treatment. You will then have the opportunity to participate in an alumni program after the formal treatment program is completed. The stages of addiction treatment include:


The primary goal is medical stabilization during the first stage of withdrawal treatment, which is known as detox. Expect the detox stage to last from a few days up to a week. When you arrive, your medical team—which will include doctors, nurses, and support staff— will complete your comprehensive medical assessment, which will help determine your level of addiction and additional medical needs you may have. The assessment includes a medical exam plus a urine screening for drugs.

Your medical team will monitor you 24/7 to help manage uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms and prevent dangerous opioid-like substance withdrawal symptoms.

Many people also experience anxiety, depression, and other emotional and psychological challenges during the detox period. Your treatment plan will also include comprehensive support to help you with these symptoms. A longer-term treatment plan will be put into place for you once you are medically stabilized.


If you and the treatment team determine that you need further medical treatment, you may continue the next stage of treatment on an inpatient basis, which might be because of co-occurring medical conditions or post-acute withdrawal symptoms. Inpatient treatment is intensive and includes 24/7 clinical monitoring. At this stage, you will start seeing a therapist regularly to help you process the emotional and psychological aspects of addiction and recovery.

Partial Hospitalization

Partial hospitalization (PHP) is in-between outpatient treatment and inpatient care. The goal of PHP is to stabilize your mental status and better prepare you for success once you return to independent living after you leave the treatment center. During this stage, you’ll live at a transitional living facility while undergoing a supportive and rigorous treatment program. This program will be five days a week for six hours each day. You will be able to participate in individual, group, and family therapy programs to help you address emotional and mental health needs.

Learning positive life skills, coping mechanisms, and techniques to help prevent relapse so that you will be prepared for long-term recovery will be the primary focus during PHP.

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Intensive Outpatient

The next stage is the intensive outpatient program (IOP). An IOP allows you to live at home while also attending counseling and programs to help support your recovery. Depending on your treatment plan, you will participate in about nine or more hours of clinical therapy several times each week.

Intensive outpatient therapy will help you to continue learning new ways to manage cravings, stress, and other challenging issues that may arise once you live on your own again. After you complete the IOP stage, you will transition into the Outpatient and Alumni programs, which is also known as aftercare.


You will have the opportunity to meet other treatment center alumni during weekly support groups and social events after you complete the formal treatment program. These aftercare opportunities spent with other alumni members can help you develop new friendships and build social support with others who understand the recovery process.

Being a part of this supportive network can help you grow while focusing on your recovery and adjusting to life after the treatment program. It can also be a safe space to share relapse prevention strategies, new experiences, and techniques for stress management. Most of all, it can be a way to enjoy time with new friends.

If You Have Over-the-Counter Drug Addiction, We Can Help

If you’re seeking help to overcome addiction to over-the-counter drugs, contact our admissions specialists today at Ocean Breeze Recovery for free and confidential help. They’re here to guide you and support you so that you will know what to expect from our evidence-based services. You will feel prepared to make an informed decision about your withdrawal treatment plans.

Our specialists can also check with your private health insurance to see if your treatment costs will be fully covered. Remember, you don’t have to go through this challenging time alone. Call us today at 844-554-9279 and let us help you get started on your journey to a healthy, fulfilling life.  


American Academy of Family Physcians. (2020 July 21) Prescription and OTC Drug Abuse. Retrieved from

Addiction Science Clinical Practice. (2002 July) The Neurobiology of Opioid Dependence: Implications for Treatment. Kosten, T. M.D., George, T. M.D. Retrieved from

NIDA. (2020, June 16). Over-the-Counter Medicines DrugFacts. Retrieved from

U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2018, May 5) MedlinePlus. Opiate and opioid withdrawal. Berger, F. MD Retrieved from

American Society of Addiction Medicine. (2015, May 13)ASAM Continuum. What are the ASAM Levels of Care? Retrieved from

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