Over-the-Counter Drug Abuse: Educating Employees on Side Effects and Overdose Prevention

While most people think of alcohol and illegal drugs when they consider substance abuse, over-the-counter drug abuse is a major problem. Medication with the potential for abuse includes seemingly innocent drugs like ibuprofen and Tylenol. Sure, they’re often great when used properly, but they can be dangerous when taken in excess of recommended dosages.

Here’s a look at some of the more commonly misused over-the-counter (OTC) drugs and how you can help educate your staff about the dangers.

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The Dangers of Ibuprofen and Other NSAIDs

Though ibuprofen and other NSAIDs — nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs — are routinely taken for pain relief, they can have serious side effects if abused. According to Dr. David Kaufman of Boston University, about 15 percent of adults abuse ibuprofen and other NSAIDs, such as naproxen (Aleve) and diclofenac (Voltaren). Forms of misuse include exceeding the daily limit or taking an additional dose sooner than directions dictate.

The side effects of abusing NSAIDs can include gastrointestinal bleeding and an increased risk of heart attack. Overuse can also cause kidney disease, the National Kidney Foundation warns. In addition, long-term use of OTC painkillers like ibuprofen or acetaminophen might also increase the risk of hearing loss, The Harvard Gazette reported.

Side Effects From Overusing Acetaminophen

Acetaminophen-based pain relievers, like Tylenol, can also have serious — and even life-threatening — side effects if used incorrectly. High doses of the drug can lead to liver failure, which can be immediately lethal or lead to a long-term health issue. ACSH notes that acetaminophen is the nation’s leading cause of acute liver failure. This is why it’s critical not to exceed the recommended daily dosage.

Other Dangerous Common Substances

Acetaminophen and NSAIDs aren’t the only over-the-counter medications that have dangerous side effects if abused. Cough medicine can cause hallucinations, rapid heart rate and even brain damage at high enough doses, Addiction Center reports.

Extremely high doses of motion-sickness drugs can cause ringing in the ears, irregular heartbeat and seizures. Even a rare caffeine overdose can cause arrhythmia and other cardiac events, according to Vox.

Interactions Between Prescribed Medicines and OTC Drugs

Over-the-counter drug abuse isn’t the only danger. Some prescribed medications can have unexpected side effects when used in conjunction with OTC medicines. Even some foods can bring about strange interactions. To avoid taking anything that could cause a harmful reaction, your employees should always tell their doctor and pharmacist about all the medicines they’re taking — including OTC drugs.

How Can Employers Educate Their Staff About OTC Abuse?

Over-the-counter drug abuse is common because it doesn’t require a doctor’s prescription or oversight. The fact that these drugs are freely bought and sold leads some people to believe that they’re perfectly safe or to think that any negative side effects are too unlikely to worry about. They may view the instructions on the label as merely a suggested guide, not taking them as seriously as they would directions on a prescription medication.

So how can employers help? Of course, you can’t monitor your staff’s OTC use. But you can initiate an in-house “marketing campaign” of sorts to educate employees about the importance of following directions and paying attention to ingredients. Start by using the information cited in this article. From there, provide additional resources that detail side effects, explaining that these are serious and they can happen if directions aren’t followed.

If possible, include actual stories from people who have suffered the side effects, as this can sometimes be more compelling than clinical descriptions. You might even host a luncheon where you bring in doctors or nurses to talk about the real dangers of abusing over-the-counter drugs. Be sure to include a Q&A session at the end.

And if your health insurance plan provides an on-call nurse line or telehealth service, remind your staff that they can always contact a medical professional if they have questions about a specific OTC drug.

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