IU

Indiana University Indiana University IU

Indiana Prevention Resource Center (IPRC)

Common Myths #3

Over-the-counter drugs are not as dangerous as prescription drugs because they don’t require a prescription.

You might assume that medications that can be freely purchased (over-the-counter) are not very dangerous because they are so easily accessible. After all, anyone can walk into a pharmacy or drug store and purchase something like a pain killer!

It is a mistake, however, to assume that simply because a medicine doesn’t require a prescription it doesn’t have the potential to cause harm. For instance, there are numerous household substances that do not require a prescription or license to obtain (such as gasoline, drain cleaner, and antifreeze) that still can be very dangerous if used improperly. The same thing holds true for many over-the-counter medicines.

In order to fully answer this question, let’s draw up a list of some of the potential effects of prescription drug abuse (for sleep aids and stimulants) and compare them to some of the potential effects of over-the-counter drug abuse (for pain killers and cough suppressants).

OTC Pain KillersOTC Cough Suppressants ,Prescription
Sleep Aids ,
Prescription Stimulants ,
Upset stomach Loss of consciousness Potentially addictive Potentially addictive
Diarrhea Seizures Blurred vision Hallucinations
Convulsions Confusion Confusion Paranoia
Vomiting Vomiting Respiratory depression Digestive problems
Coma Disorientation Drowsiness Insomnia

Not all of these effects will affect every person who uses or abuses these substances. These are simply outcomes that have been observed in some cases.

As we can see from the lists of possible negative effects related to abusing these substances, the assumption that over-the-counter medicines cannot cause harm because they are easy to obtain is not supported. In fact, although there is no specific way to compare levels of severity related to substance abuse in this example, it seems as though over-the-counter medications can be equally as serious to abuse as prescription medications.

This information suggests that, much like prescription medication, it is safest to use over-the-counter medication as directed and in a highly controlled manner.


  Zieve, D., Juhn, G., Eltz, D.R., and Stacy, K.A. (2008). Acetaminophen overdose. Retrieved online on 7/15/08 from: http://nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus.

  The Partnership for a Drug Free America. (2008). DXM. Retrieved online on 8/21/08 from: http://www.drugfree.org.

  FDA. (2005). FDA warns against use of dextromethorphan (DXM). Retrieved online on 8/21/08 from: http://www.fda.gov.

  Newton, C.R.H. (2005). Benzodiazepine abuse. Retrieved online on 7/21/08 from: http://www.emedicinehealth.com.

  Lessenger, J.E. & Feinberg, S.D. (2008). Abuse of prescription and over-the-counter medications. Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, 21, 45-54.

  Sussman, S., Pentz, M.A., Spruijt-Metz, D., and Miller, T. (2006). Misuse of “study drugs:” Prevalence, consequences, and implications for policy. Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy, 1(15), 1-7.

  Staff. (2006). Prescription medicines: Basic facts. Retrieved online on 7/24/08 from: http://www.phoenixhouse.org.