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Combating OTC Drug Abuse: 4 Things Every Union Member Should Know

By Tracey Lewis | Jan 23, 2019

Drug abuse education usually centers on alcohol and illegal drugs, rarely focusing on the drugs people take for everyday health problems. Medicine as seemingly harmless as over-the-counter (OTC) drugs — like acetaminophen, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and other medications — can still be harmful if used incorrectly. Members can buy these drugs whenever as they want, and because OTC drugs don't require a prescription, they seem harmless, making OTC drug abuse so easy that members might not even realize they're doing it.

 Union boards are in a position to communicate with members about how and why to avoid taking OTC drugs incorrectly or taking too much, something that 15 percent of adults who take some kind of OTC medication do, according to a recent Boston University study. Here are four things to make sure your members know to use OTC drugs safely.

 1. Side Effects of OTC Drug Abuse

 A 2016 study in the American Journal of Medical Science found that many people who take OTC drugs are either unaware of their harmful side effects or just don't care about them. Even some of the most common OTC medications, such as NSAIDs, can cause:

  •  Stomach bleeding and ulcers
  •  Kidney and liver problems
  •  Cardiac irregularity
  •  Hypertension

2. How to Safely Take OTC Drugs

 Each OTC drug has its own guidelines for how — and how often — to take it. This makes it all but impossible to educate members on how to use each drug individually. Instead, prioritize teaching members health literacy skills, so that they're equipped with the ability to find and understand information related to any OTC drugs they consider taking. Members should be able to find information like dosage recommendations on a drug container's label and interpret its instructions.

 In addition, provide members with resources for searching out more information about a given OTC drug, including how it interacts with other drugs. Boston University's study found that 37 percent of adults report taking more than one NSAID at a time. Mixing OTC drugs can make them less effective or increase the chances of side effects, so encourage members to look into each medication they take.

 3. Warning Signs of Abuse

 Most union members probably couldn't say what OTC drug abuse looks like — in fact, it's likely not even something they know to look for. Drug abuse can look different for everyone, and not every member who misuses OTC medications will show the typical signs of drug abuse like frequent sick days, personality changes and poor work performance. But you and your members should be aware of which kinds of members are most at risk for abusing OTC drugs, namely:


  •  Members whose pain is poorly managed. Members who face pain — especially chronic pain — might try to find relief by taking more than the recommended amount of OTC pain medications.
  •  Members in poor health. Members who are frequently sick may try combining OTC medications.
  •  Older members. A recent study found that NSAIDs may pose the greatest risk to older patients, among whom 10 percent of hospital readmissions are caused by preventable adverse drug reactions. 

4. How a Health Plan Can Help

 OTC drugs have revolutionized how patients manage their health. They're convenient and affordable. The popular perception that OTC drugs are safer and less expensive than prescription medicine can lead members to head to the corner shop instead of the pharmacy after a doctor's appointment. But when it comes to more serious pains and illnesses, OTC drugs are rarely an adequate replacement for doctor-recommended prescription drugs.

 Apart from health literacy education, one of the most effective tools unions have to combat OTC drug abuse is a health insurance plan that helps members cover the cost of clinically appropriate prescription medications. Members should use OTC drugs for what the label describes, not as a cheaper alternative to medicine they've been prescribed.

 Educating members on how to safely take OTC drugs can come in the form of health fairs, newsletter blasts or even just a simple fact sheet. However you decide to communicate strategies for recognizing and avoiding OTC drug abuse, though, the information will benefit both the union and its members, preventing serious medical conditions from drug misuse, reducing emergency care and creating an environment of value and care for members.


Tracey Lewis, journalist and author, focuses primarily on B2B health care, financial services and other internal corporate communications. Author of a best-selling, pop-culture book published by Random House Books, and a trained oral historian, Tracey also enjoys delving into music, arts and film content. Skilled in SEO optimization and digital storytelling, she knows how to collaborate with communications, policy, research, legal and designer teams to create and execute cohesive content strategies.