Over-the-Counter Drug Withdrawal

When many 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 opioids. 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 stimulate a reward process in the brain. This means that chemicals in the drugs attach to special proteins, or receptors, on certain brain cells. This connection causes a biochemical reaction to occur, which then causes a pleasure response in the body. This pleasurable response is so powerful because it usually happens as a result of important life activities like eating and sex.

otc-drug withdrawal

Even though the opioids in regular doses of some of these OTC drugs aren’t as powerful as prescription opioids or illegal opiates, they can still cause similar effects. Plus, regular misuse of OTC drugs can cause the body to develop a craving or addiction to the drug. As this recreational use for a “high” continues, the brain adjusts and develops a tolerance to the drug.

Soon, this causes the brain to require more of the drug to feel the same high. At this point, the brain has become dependent on the drug.  These larger doses are not only addictive, but they can also be dangerous when misused. In fact, it’s possible to overdose on OTC drugs, just as it’s possible to overdose on other types of drugs.

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

Because many of the OTC drugs that are abused contain opioids, over-the-counter drug withdrawal symptoms are similar to most symptoms of opioid withdrawal. OTC drug withdrawal causes uncomfortable, but not life-threatening, 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
  • Dilated pupils
  • 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. 

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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 DrugWithdrawal Treatment Steps?

While there are different stages and kinds of addiction treatment, following a full continuum of treatment is the most comprehensive approach. Participating in a full continuum of treatment will provide you with the best chance of recovery. You will begin with the highest and most intense level of care during the detox phase. Then you will progress through less intense levels of treatment. Stages of addiction treatment include:


Medical stabilization is the goal during the detox stage of over-the-counter drug withdrawal treatment. This stage will last about three to seven days or longer, depending on the severity of your addiction.

When you arrive, a medical team will give you a complete medical assessment to determine your level of addiction and any other medical needs you may have. The team likely will include doctors, nurses, and support staff. The medical assessment will include a medical exam and urine or blood tests to screen for drugs. After your doctor reviews your results, you may also require additional testing, which may include more blood tests, including a CBC (complete blood count), chest X-ray, ECG (electrocardiogram), and exams for other diseases.

Once your doctor has reviewed all of the test results, a detox plan will be created for you. You will then begin the detox process under the care of your medical team. You will be under 24-hour clinical supervision during this time.

Many people also experience anxiety, depression, and other emotional and psychological challenges as they detox. Because of this, your treatment plan will also include emotional support as you begin addiction therapy.  


Next, you will continue treatment in a residential facility or in a partial hospitalization program. Your doctor will determine which path is right for you based on the severity of your addiction and whether or not you have any other addictions or additional medical or psychological conditions.

A residential treatment stay allows you to focus solely on your psychological and emotional recovery. You’ll stay full-time at the residential treatment center while you participate in a supportive and highly structured treatment program at least five days a week. This program will address your emotional and mental health needs to help you begin the process of returning to your life outside the treatment center. These skills will help to prepare you for long-term recovery.  


You may move directly to a partial hospitalization program (PHP) after completing detox. The PHP stage is a blend of inpatient care and outpatient treatment. At this stage, you’ll live at a transitional living facility. While you are here, you will participate in a supportive and rigorous treatment program five days a week for six hours each day.

During this time, you will participate in individual, group, and family therapy programs to address your emotional and mental health needs. The focus during PHP is learning positive life skills, coping mechanisms, and techniques to help prevent relapse. The goal of PHP is to help you to be better prepared for long-term recovery as you begin the process of returning to your life outside the treatment center.  


Each of the stages of the full continuum of treatment is designed to help you to slowly transition back to life outside the rehab facility while also helping you build the skills and resources you need to cope and avoid relapsing. The next stage is the intensive outpatient program (IOP). The IOP stage allows you to either move back home or possibly into a “sober home,” which is a facility that provides those in recovery from substance abuse with a more structured lifestyle that promotes sobriety.

At this stage, your therapy sessions won’t be as frequent. You will still attend intensive therapy sessions and continue with medication management if needed. You will also continue to be accountable for your recovery during this stage of treatment, including periodic weekly drug testing.  


After you have completed the treatment program, you will have the opportunity to join other treatment center graduates during weekly support groups and social events. These are great opportunities to meet other program alumni and develop new friendships. Building this social network can help support you and your goals for long-term success. Most important, you can enjoy getting to know 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 (855) 960-5341 and let us help you get started on your journey to a healthy, fulfilling life.

  • Cherney, Kristeen (2016, November 14) Opiate Withdrawal: What It Is and How to Cope With It. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com

    Kosten, T.R. & George, Tony P. (2002, July) The Neurobiology of Opioid Dependence: Implications for Treatment. Addiction Science & Clinical Practice: Science & Practice Perspectives. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov

    Opiate and Opioid Withdrawal. (2018, November 13). Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov

    (2017, December) Over-the-Counter-Medicines. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov