The Side Effects of 5 Popularly Abused Over-The-Counter Drugs

The Side Effects of 5 Popularly Abused Over-The-Counter Drugs

Friday, November 10, 2017 5:02 pm

Omiete Charles-Davies

By Godwin Adoga

In Nigeria today, many people self-medicate, that is they take medications without going to the doctor to get a diagnosis and possibly a prescription.

Despite the possible dangers of self-medication, a lot of people don’t still understand why it is a harmful practice. There are also ‘everyday’ drugs that people believe are very safe and have little or no side effects.

In this article, we will be discussing the side-effects of many drugs that people buy over-the-counter without prescriptions. The purpose is to help everyone understand the need to use all medications responsibly and carefully even if they aren’t psychoactive substances.

1. Antibiotics

This is one area that almost everyone is guilty of. Many people go to nearby drug stores and pharmacies to get antibiotics without getting diagnosed. This can be quite harmful to the individual and the society.

There is a growing trend of antibiotic resistance sweeping many parts of the world today. Many infections are becoming to treat because they have adapted to a lot of our antibiotics. This leads many researchers and scientists to fear the emergence of a possible ‘superbug’ that won’t respond to any drugs in the world’s antibiotics arsenal.


One way to prevent this is to take antibiotics only when prescribed by a doctor and to avoid taking them unnecessarily for viral infections like common cold and for symptoms like cough.

Also, antibiotics have their side effects. Overusing them could cause the death of ‘good bacteria’ in our intestines that help protect us from infections. This can lead to diarrhoea, green stools and an increased amount of mucus in our poop. Some other side effects of overusing antibiotics are:

  • Fungal infections like yeast
  • Mouth sores
  • Rashes
  • Allergic reactions (especially if you react to a constituent of the drug)

2. Blood Supplements

Many Nigerians believe that they need to take blood capsules or syrups to stay healthy. This popular health myth is why many people demand these medications at hospital, pharmacies and drug stores. The honest truth is this: except you are pregnant, have some deficiency or a low level of red blood cells (anaemia), there is actually no need to be on these drugs.

Blood supplements contain iron, folic acid and other vitamins.

The daily use of blood supplements can lead to undesired effects like:

  • Stomach upset
  • Nausea
  • Constipation
  • Black stools
  • Darkened teeth

In children, high doses of iron is the most common cause of poison deaths, so it is important to give children iron at the appropriate dosage and when necessary.

3. Painkillers

Pain is one of the most common symptoms in the world. The International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP) defines pain as an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage.

It is very subjective, meaning that two people can have the same pain but feel it to different extents.

A lot of people buy painkillers over-the-counter whenever they have some painful discomfort instead of getting it checked by a doctor. This practice can be harmful because pain could be caused by serious conditions that may need urgent medical attention.

Examples of painkillers you can get without a prescription are:

  • Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) like diclofenac, ibuprofen and Aspirin
  • Paracetamol (panadol, Tylenol)

NSAIDs are known for one major side effect: the development of peptic ulcers. These drugs deplete the protective mucus layer that protects the stomach from its own acid, leading to wounds (ulcers) in the wall of the stomach. This can cause severe abdominal pain, heartburn and bloody stools.

Paracetamol is perhaps one of the most dispensed drugs in Nigeria. However, it can lead to side effects like loss of appetite, nausea and stomach pain. When taken in very high doses (about 10 grams), it can cause acute liver failure. As a matter of fact, paracetamol is the most common cause of acute liver failure in the United States and the United Kingdom. This is also one reason why paracetamol is supplied in blister packets, making obtaining the actual tablets take longer.

4. Laxatives

Laxatives are medications that cause contractions in the intestines, making a person more likely to take a poo. They are widely used to treat constipation. However, it is often abused and used wrongly. Many people don’t know that constipation is when you poo less than three times in a week.

The abuse of laxatives is also quite common among people with eating disorders. They take laxatives for fear of gaining weight after eating a heavy meal.

Some side effects of laxatives are stomach cramps, diarrhea, the passage of green stools and electrolyte imbalance.

5. Cough Syrups

We left this for the last point because the trends show that many young Nigerians are currently abusing cough syrups.

In my discussion with a senior colleague about this, he complained about a decrease in the availability of many cough syrups because they are often bought in large quantities by young people. Cough syrups are known to contain some psychoactive substances that could give the ‘feel good’ experience. This reason, along with the fact that you don’t need a prescription to buy them is why they are becoming a majorly abused drug.

However, there are side effects of taking these drugs in large quantities like drowsiness, vomiting, hallucinations, depression of the central nervous system, decreased respiratory rate, decreased heart rate and sometimes death.

Promethazine-codeine cough syrup has been linked to the overdose deaths of a few prominent musicians.


Now that we have looked at popular over-the-counter drugs and their side effects, it is important that we all understand that they aren’t completely harmless.

Caution should be taken when using any medication as there may be undesired effects that go along with their use. Also, it is advisable to avoid self-medication as much as possible and discuss any adverse drug reactions with your doctor.


Author Profile:

Dr. Charles-Davies OA is a medical doctor and founder of, a website where you can ask doctors health questions online.

Join The Conversation

What do you think?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.