Young Women Increasingly Abusing OTC Drugs in Japan

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Young women are increasingly abusing over-the-counter (OTC) drugs, according to a research group of the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.

Females accounted for 80% of 122 people taken to hospital in connection with use of OTC drugs between May 2021 and December 2022, based on the group’s statistics. The average age of respondents was 25.8 years old.

Information easily available on the internet is thought to be a contributing factor to the OTC-abuse problem.

‘Painful emotions’

Late last year, a 24-year-old woman in Chiba Prefecture was rushed to hospital after ingesting almost 100 cold-medicine pills. The woman recounted how she had been experiencing marital difficulties and, with divorce looming, felt emotionally cornered.

“I don’t even care if I die,” she recalled thinking as she uncapped the pill bottle. Repeatedly guzzling tablets by the handful, her tongue began to swell and she gradually lost consciousness.

The woman eventually came to in the hospital, feeling extremely nauseous after having her stomach pumped. It was not the first time for her to ingest a life-threatening quantity of OTC drugs.

Toward the end of her second year of high school, she had found herself struggling with family- and friendship-related issues. While online, she encountered a number of posts on X (then known as Twitter) that advocated overdosing on OTC drugs, making such claims as: “You can forget about troublesome things,” or “You can feel fluffy and comfortable.”

“Encouraged” by such posts, she swallowed — on several different occasions — an excess of pills in hopes of escaping from the troubles of her daily life.

The woman, who is currently undergoing psychological counseling, says she now strongly desires to break free from her drug-related problems.

“I don’t want to go through that kind of pain anymore,” she said. “Once you get involved, it’s difficult to get out.”

Support available

Meanwhile, Shizuka Yuasa offers support to troubled youngsters and their families based on her own experience of OTC drug addiction.

Since mid-2021, the 43-year-old Yuasa has opened a room in her home where she receives more than 20 visits a month from concerned families — mostly parents with children in junior high or high school.

Yuasa says many people tend to avoid outpatient treatment over concerns about public perception and the possible impact of such problems on their — or their children’s — careers.

“When people overdose, it’s a signal that they need help,” Yuasa said. “I’d like it if [such people] could talk to their families, seek medical attention and lean on support services to alleviate their concerns.”

1st survey of its kind

According to the ministry’s research group, the survey — the first of its kind — was conducted at seven medical institutions nationwide, including Saitama Medical University. The results were released this year.

Of the 122 people who were taken to hospital due to OTC-related issues, 59.8% had nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain, while 44.3% experienced central nervous system-related phenomena, including hallucinations. Of the 122, 92.6% were hospitalized and 56.6% were treated in intensive care units.

By gender, 25 were male and 97 were female. By age, 50 were in their 20s, and 43 were between 10 and 19, accounting for about 80% of the people transported to hospital.

“Unlike stimulants and other [illicit] drugs, [over-the-counter pills] aren’t illegal, which has led to many young people overdosing,” said Yoshito Kamijo, who heads the research group and leads the university’s clinical addiction center. “Interpersonal relationships weakened due to the pandemic, and many people seem to have learned about OTC-drug overdoses while surfing the internet.”