Background: The sale of over-the-counter (OTC) medicines from pharmacies can help individuals self-manage symptoms. However, some OTC medicines may be abused, with addiction and harms being increasingly recognised. This review describes the current knowledge and understanding of OTC medicine abuse.
Approach: Comprehensive search of international empirical and review literature between 1990 and 2011.
Findings: OTC MEDICINE ABUSE WAS IDENTIFIED IN MANY COUNTRIES AND ALTHOUGH IMPLICATED PRODUCTS VARIED, FIVE KEY GROUPS EMERGED: codeine-based (especially compound analgesic) medicines, cough products (particularly dextromethorphan), sedative antihistamines, decongestants and laxatives. No clear patterns relating to those affected or their experiences were identified and they may represent a hard-to-reach group, which coupled with heterogeneous data, makes estimating the scale of abuse problematic. Associated harms included direct physiological or psychological harm (e.g. opiate addiction), harm from another ingredient (e.g. ibuprofen-related gastric bleeding) and associated social and economic problems. Strategies and interventions included limiting supplies, raising public and professional awareness and using existing services and Internet support groups, although associated evaluations were lacking. Terminological variations were identified.
Conclusions: OTC medicine abuse is a recognised problem internationally but is currently incompletely understood. Research is needed to quantify scale of abuse, evaluate interventions and capture individual experiences, to inform policy, regulation and interventions.
Keywords: Over-the-counter; abuse; medicines.