Non-Addictive Drugs: Are They Always Safe?

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Prescription drugs on pharmacy shelf

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Sometimes when people say "drugs," they mean only the drugs that can lead to addiction. But if you use the word “drug” to mean all the medications that can treat illness, then most drugs aren’t addictive: antibiotics, allergy medications, mild pain relievers like aspirin, and many others.

Why the difference? Most medications don’t affect the brain, at least not the parts of the brain that cause intense good feelings. That means people aren’t likely to misuse them, since they won’t make a person “high.”

Drugs that increase a brain chemical called dopamine, including opioid pain relievers, stimulants given for ADHD, and sedatives given to help anxiety, are more likely to be addictive than drugs that don’t increase dopamine.

Even if a drug doesn’t have a risk for addiction, though, you should still be careful how you use it. This includes not just medications that require a doctor’s prescription, but also “over the counter” (OTC) medications you can buy at the drug store without a prescription.

Know the risks

  • All drugs (including OTC types) have side effects, which—depending on a person’s body chemistry, how much of the drug they take, and other factors—can be mild, very unpleasant, or even deadly.
  • Sometimes it isn’t just the medication that’s potentially dangerous, but combining it with something else. For example, using alcohol and medications at the same time can lead to some risky side effects.
  • Taking some drugs over and over may lead to tolerance or dependence, making them less effective. This can happen even if a person doesn’t get addicted.

Handle with care 

  • Take a prescribed drug exactly the way your doctor says you should.
  • For OTC medications, carefully follow the directions on the package.

Misuing any drug can be dangerous.

Learn more about the risks of mixing medicines.

Find Help Near You

Use the SAMHSA Treatment Locator to find substance use or other mental health services in your area. If you are in an emergency situation, this toll-free, 24-hour hotline can help you get through this difficult time: call 1-800-273-TALK, or visit the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. We also have step by step guides on what to do to help yourself, a friend or a family member.

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