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Can I Overdose on Over-the-Counter Painkillers?

Can I Overdose on Over-the-Counter Painkillers?There is a mistaken assumption that anything that has been approved for sale by the government is therefore completely safe. The fact is that some over-the-counter pain medications contain ingredients that can be dangerous if taken in too large a dose, and may lead to overdose that can cause health problems, or in extreme cases, may even be fatal.

Over-the-Counter Painkillers that May Cause Overdose

Synthetic opioids are the most effective painkillers available, and are the primary active ingredients in prescription pain medications such as Lortab, Vicodin, Percocet, OxyContin and Dilaudid. These pain medications contain the powerful opioids hydrocodone, oxycodone or hydromorphone, which are all listed by the federal government as controlled substances. The government recognizes that these substances have medicinal value but also have the potential to be abused, and therefore monitors and controls their use. They are available by prescription only and should be used exactly as directed by a doctor.

However, the less potent opioid codeine is not a controlled substance and is available in many over-the-counter pain medications as well as in cough suppressants. Codeine does not have the potency of the stronger prescription opioids, but it is still possible to overdose on codeine if it is taken in too large a dose. Codeine is not as popular a recreation drug as prescription opioids, but is still sometimes abused by people seeking a high. Large amounts of codeine are needed to achieve a high, and some people have been known to drink an entire bottle of cough syrup at once in this pursuit.

Symptoms of codeine overdose include the following:

  • Sleepiness
  • Low blood pressure
  • Slowed heart rate
  • Slowed breathing
  • Pinpoint pupils

Depressed breathing is the cause of death in cases of fatal opioids overdose.

Acetaminophen is another pain relieving substance that is known to be toxic in large doses. Acetaminophen is available in many over-the-counter preparations. Acetaminophen can cause serious and possibly fatal liver damage when taken in large doses, especially if it is combined with alcohol. Acetaminophen toxicity can accrue in the system, so that regular use of moderate amounts can also be hazardous, especially to regular drinkers and alcoholics. Heavy drinkers and alcoholics are at greatly increased risk of suffering from acetaminophen toxicity or overdose.

The symptoms of acetaminophen overdose include the following:

  • Tiredness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Paleness
  • Sweating
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal pain and tenderness
  • Swelling of the liver
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes)
  • Liver failure (possibly fatal)
  • Encephalopathy (swelling of the brain)

What To Do in Case of Overdose

If you suspect an overdose call 911 immediately and be ready with the following information:

  • What drugs were taken
  • When the drugs were taken
  • How much of the drugs were taken
  • If the drugs were taken with other drugs or alcohol
  • Age of patient
  • If the patient is conscious and breathing
  • Other symptoms the patient is experiencing

Questions about Over-the-Counter Painkillers or Overdose?

Over-the-counter drugs should be used with caution and exactly as directed on the label. If you have any questions about over-the-counter drugs, overdose, drug abuse, addiction or treatment, or if you would like help finding treatment for drug abuse or addiction, call our toll-free helpline. Counselors are available 24 hours a day to answer any questions you may have and help you find treatment if you need it.

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