Researchers Launch Study of OTC Medicine Addiction

By Paul Gaita 11/07/14

A new study will look into the abuse of over-the-counter medication like codeine and non-prescription painkillers.

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A new study is shedding light into an infrequently discussed area of addiction research, over-the-counter (OTC) medicines, or non-prescription medication like ibuprofen and painkillers containing codeine.

Niamh Fingleton, a PhD student at the University of Aberdeen, has completed what is called the first study to measure the statistics of addiction to OTC medication. The first phase of the study gave questionnaires about use of OTC medication to 972 individuals from across the United Kingdom. Of that number, 2% responded that they were currently or previously addicted to non-prescription medicine, and more than half of that subset stated that they had not sought any help for their addiction.

Fingleton and her supervisors are now in the process of recruiting volunteers aged 18 or older for the second phase of the study, which will attempt to interview individuals who consider themselves addicted to OTC medication in order to determine why they are avoiding help for their issues.

“It’s important that we understand what helps and hinders people to seek treatment so that seeking help is easier for others in the future,” Fingleton said. “Previous research has found that self-treatment is often unsuccessful, so it is important to use the help that is available.”

According to a 2009 survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, more than three million young people in the United States are believed to have abused cough and cold medications. Dextromethorphan (DXM), the active ingredient in many cough and cold medications, is the most frequently abused OTC drug. Poison control centers across the country reported an increase by seven times in the amount of cases involving 15 to 16-year-olds and DXM between 1999 and 2004.

When abused, the medication can cause hallucinations and loss of motor control, though many OTC medications that contain DXM also contain antihistamines or decongestants, which can produce potentially fatal liver injury or cardiovascular effects if taken in high dosages.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.