OTC Abuse Statistics

One of the growing trends in teen drug use today is the abuse of over the counter (OTC) drugs. There are many reasons that teenagers choose to abuse OTC drugs. They are more readily available than illegal drugs for one thing. Also, they are often viewed as “safer” than illegal drugs. For most teens, using over the counter drugs to get a buzz or to help them stay awake while studying is not a problem. OTC drugs are increasingly becoming an accepted part of teenage culture. Unfortunately, many of these teens do not realize that they are in danger when they abuse OTC drugs.

OTC Drug Abuse Statistics

The US National Library of Medicines report statistics from a 2005 National Survey:

  • 6.4 million people (age 12+) used prescription drugs in the last 30 days for non-medical purposes.
  • Pain relievers were used by 4.7 million, tranquilizers by 1.8 million, and stimulants by 1.1 million.
  • In 2005 use of prescription drugs for non-medical purposes increased from 5.4% in 2002 to 6.3% in 18-25 year olds.

Getting OTC drugs

Teens agree that getting a hold of over the counter drugs is easy. All one usually has to do is go to the medicine cabinet. In some states it is possible for teens to go to the store and purchase OTC drugs for their use.

  • 56 percent of teens feel that getting OTC drugs is easier than getting illegal drugs
  • Internet accessibility to information about how to get high on OTC drugs, and how to order them, makes over the counter drugs even easier to obtain and use

Most teens are aware that they can find a high in their very own bathroom, in the form of cough syrup and other over the counter medications.

Attitudes toward teen OTC drug use

Most teens that abuse OTC drugs are not really even aware that they are doing something dangerous. The perception of over the counter drugs is that their legality somehow makes them safe. To teenagers, it seems ludicrous that an OTC drug could be dangerous to them because they are so readily available. They are sold at the store, their parents give them OTC drugs when they have colds and they are considered safe when used in proper context. Illegal drugs are none of these things. Teenagers need to understand that teen OTC abuse is a real problem with real dangers.

  • 40 percent of teens feel that OTC medicines are much safer than illegal drugs
  • 31 percent of teens agree that using OTC and Rx medications is okay “once in a while”
  • 55 percent of teens do not strongly feel that it is risky to use cough medicine to get high
  • 10 percent of teens report that they use cough medicine to get high

Lack of education about teen OTC drug abuse

One of the biggest problems with curbing teen OTC drug use is the fact that so few teens know about the dangers. Drug education programs focus mainly on illegal drugs and, likewise, parents tend to focus mainly on the dangers of illegal drugs like marijuana (which is also increasing in popularity among teens).

  • 92 percent of parents claim to talk to their teens about drug use
  • 60 percent parents report speaking to their children “a lot” about marijuana¬†use


  • 33 percent of parents report talking to their teenagers about the dangers of OTC medications to get high

Some parents may not even understand the dangers associated with using over the counter prescription drugs by teens to get high. Changing these trends will require more education.

OTC Abuse Statistics Source material:

  1. “Key Findings on Teen Drug Trends (PATS 2005)”, Partnership for a Drug-Free America. [Online.]
  2. “Abuse of Prescription and Over-the-counter Medications”, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. [Online.]