What is Self Medication?

Self medication is the use of any drug or medication to treat an illness or ailment without the supervision of a licensed medical doctor. Most people limit their self-medicating behaviors to the use of over-the-counter drugs for everyday health complaints such as colds or headaches. However, some people use illicit or illegal substances to self-medicate for serious problems such as severe pain, depression, anxiety disorders or bipolar disorder. In these circumstances, the unsupervised use of drugs or medications can potentially lead to the onset of additional health problems, including drug dependence or addiction.

Background Information

Legal medications in the U.S. can come in prescription or non-prescription form. While doctors must approve the use of prescription medications, non-prescription or over-the-counter medications are commonly available in pharmacies and supermarkets. Both prescription and non-prescription medications come with explicit instructions that describe their safe use, and any use that avoids or ignores these instructions is considered illicit, which means the usage doesn’t conform to established guidelines or the requirements of the law. By definition, the use of illegal drugs-such as cocaine, methamphetamines, hallucinogens-is illicit. Marijuana inhabits something of a gray area; although it’s illegal under federal drug statutes, a number of U.S. states have decriminalized its use. Self-medication occurs whenever you use any prescription, non-prescription or illegal drug without a doctor’s ongoing instructions and advice. You can also self-medicate with alcoholic products such as beer, wine or liquor.

Self-Medication With Non-Prescription Drugs

To self-medicate safely with non-prescription drugs, consumers must take responsibility in several different ways, according to guidelines issued by the World Medical Association. Steps in safe usage include correctly identifying your symptoms; determining whether self-medication is an appropriate option; choosing the right type of product to treat your symptoms; and properly following the instructions that come with the chosen product. To help safeguard consumers, doctors and other health care professionals must educate the public about appropriate use of non-prescription medications; make sure their patients read all included instructions; and help the public determine when self-medication is not a safe or helpful treatment option.

Self-Medication With Illicit or Illegal Drugs

While some people use illicit or illegal drugs – or alcohol – for purely recreational purposes, others use these substances in an attempt to deal with physical or emotional conditions that significantly disrupt their everyday lives. For instance, some people use marijuana to deal with the effects of fibromyalgia or other forms of chronic pain. Other people use alcohol or various drugs to deal with anxiety, fear, stress, depression or other intense or extreme emotional states. While self-medication is sometimes a conscious goal in these circumstances, many people don’t have a clear picture of themselves or their situations and unconsciously fall into a self-medicating routine. In many cases, the substances used for self-medication produce effects that closely or roughly approximate the effects of prescription medications.

Potential Consequences of Self-Medication

People who self-medicate can potentially worsen their overall health by developing dependencies on the substances they use, according to a study published by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. For example, roughly 24 percent of study participants who self-medicated with drugs developed a drug-related substance abuse problem. Roughly 13 percent of participants who self-medicated with alcohol developed an alcohol-related substance abuse problem. Once a dependency begins, drug or alcohol use commonly becomes the focus of activity, not relief of the underlying physical or emotional problem. What’s more, self-medication for serious mental or emotional problems often fails to address the underlying problem in any real way, and leads to the simultaneous presence of substance abuse and an ongoing mental health issue.

Even in the absence of substance abuse issues, self-medication can lead to unwanted health problems. For instance, while self-medication with marijuana can potentially relieve chronic pain symptoms or nausea, it can also lead to a significant decline in your overall mental health. If you self-medicate with a non-prescription drug and fail to properly follow the included instructions, you can potentially develop minor or serious side effects related to that particular drug.

A Word of Caution

To safeguard your health, review your use of alcohol and all medications or drugs with a physician. If you’re self-medicating improperly, your doctor can likely recommend legitimate prescription or non-prescription alternatives to address your symptoms. In addition to addressing your health concerns, proper use of all medications can help you avoid any potential problems with side effects, substance abuse and dependence.