Are Americans Overusing Over-The-Counter Medications?

By Beth Leipholtz 02/16/18

A new study examined the way people used over-the-counter medicines like Advil, Motrin and Aleve.

young woman shopping at pharmacy

Researchers have found that prescription opioids aren’t the only medications being overused, and in some cases abused, by Americans, according to a new study. 

The study, led by Boston University School of Public Health researcher David Kaufman, found that nearly one in five individuals that used headache medications such as Advil or Aleve admitted they exceeded the recommended daily maximum dose during a one-week period. 

For the study, Kaufman enlisted 1,326 adults to keep medication diaries for one week between 2015 and 2016. The study states that the participants' average age was 45, 75% of them were white and about 60% were women. 

According to the results, about 87% took an ibuprofen like Advil or Motrin, while about 37% took another type of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), such as aspirin, or naproxens such as Aleve. More than 15% of the participants took more than the recommended dosage on one or more days during the week. The study also found that the participants with the worst health, with issues such as chronic pain, were the ones more likely to go over the recommended dosage limit. 

According to NBC News, Kaufman states that individuals who overuse over-the-counter medications may be setting themselves up for some serious health concerns down the line. 

“These drugs can have serious side effects, including gastrointestinal bleeding and heart attacks, and are often taken without medical oversight,” Kaufman told NBC. "The attitude that users can choose their own dose regardless of label directions, along with poor knowledge of dosing limits, is associated with exceeding the daily limit.”

According to Kaufman, it’s not likely that these individuals are taking more over-the-counter medications in order to avoid opioids. “My guess is that while avoidance of opioids may influence prescribing decisions by doctors, it may not affect consumer behavior very much,” Kaufman told the Chicago Tribune.

With the flu being prominent recently, knowledge about over-the-counter medications is important. According to Today, a Florida nurse, Katherine Lockler, went viral after posting a video about flu remedies. In it, Lockler touches on the correct dosages of over-the-counter medications. 

“Treat your fever with Tylenol or Motrin,” she said. “If you are an adult, you can take more than 200 milligrams of Motrin. You can actually take four to six hundred. And if you’re a big dude in pain, you can take maybe 800, just depends on your weight.”

According to NBC News, some medical professionals believe that ibuprofens like Advil or Motrin should require a prescription to protect people who do not read directions or take the medications for the wrong reasons. 

According to Tylenol, adult users should not exceed a maximum dose of 3,000 milligrams per day (a normal pill is 325 milligrams). Meanwhile, Motrin states that its recommended maximum dosage is 3,200 milligrams per day. 

One possible limitation, according to the study, is that researchers focused on recent and current ibuprofen users, which may not be indicative of what doses are typical for new or sporadic users. 

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Beth is a Minnesota girl who got sober at age 20. By day she is a website designer, and in her spare time she enjoys writing about recovery at, doing graphic design and spending time with her boyfriend and three dogs. Find Beth on LinkedInInstagram and Twitter.