Potentially Addictive Cold Medication and Substance Abuse

October 13, 2014 Kira Lesley

Getting sick raises questions and concerns for people in substance abuse recovery. As the leaves fall and the heaters turn on, colds, flus and other illnesses make the rounds. Personally, I am prone to developing sinus infections. Every time I come down with something, I have to consider what kinds of remedies are safe for me as a person in recovery. Two days ago I went to the doctor feeling like my head was going to explode. My main concerns were post nasal drip, headache, facial ache and fatigue. I had been feeling this way for a month but I hoped my body would fight it off. The doctor said I did have dripping and congestion, but no infection yet. In addition to the nasal spray I currently use, he prescribed me an antihistamine-decongestant combination.

Potentially Addictive Cold Medicine

When in substance abuse recovery, cold medication may be potentially addictive. What medication is safe to take if you are an addict?

The decongestant is pseudoephedrine, a restricted substance where I live. This gave me pause. I have taken this decongestant since getting sober, but not without trepidation. The first time, I took it once and talked to my sponsor about it because I was unsure of my motivations. Although I do have a long history of sinus problems, at that time, thoughts were going through my head like: "maybe this will give me energy" and "maybe this will suppress my appetite." I wanted congestion relief, but I also was looking forward to those side effects.

We decided, at that time, that if it was causing me such confusion and worry, I should not take it again. Even though I had not abused the drug, I know it is easy for me to relapse into abuse of substances.

Since then, I have taken it once when I was very sick and out of the country and again last spring when my doctor prescribed it. This will make the fourth instance in seven-and-a-half years that I've taken this drug, and it is only when I've exhausted my other options. I practice nasal irrigation, I use a nasal spray and I've taken countless rounds of antibiotics. I've also used non-pseudoephedrine based decongestants and non-habit forming antihistamines. I will still use all these things for maintenance, but none of them work when my congestion is severe.

Avoiding Triggers When Taking Medicine

Navigating the substances we put into our bodies is tricky in recovery. Certain medicines, like liquid cold medicine, I avoid because I find them triggering. I also avoid medicines that make me sleepy, because I chased that feeling of sedation when I was drinking.

The key difference for me between the psuedoephedrine decongestant and the sedating cold medicine, is that I feel I have a legitimate medical need to take the decongestant, whereas cough syrup might be nice, but it hasn't been necessary. When I have a cold, I can get relief from hot tea with lemon and throat lozenges. For my sinuses, however, nothing has worked very well (although nasal irrigation helps).

It is also true that I pursued "downers" much more than "uppers," but that's not why I have allowed myself to take the decongestant. No matter our drug of choice, I think people with addiction problems need to be wary of all mind-altering substances. If this medication made me feel high, I would reconsider taking it. As for now, however, it does not make me feel high or different in any way. Over the course of my prescription, I will need to remain vigilant about how I'm feeling and to be honest with someone in recovery (in my case, my sponsor) about if and how the medicine is affecting me.

Checking Your Motivations When Using Medication in Recovery

The main question I ask myself before taking any medicine is, why am I doing this? If the answer is anything other than a legitimate medical reason, I probably should not be taking it. It's a good idea to run our ideas by at least one other person whose recovery program we respect so we don't rationalize poor decisions. Right now, I can honestly say that I am not interested in the potential side effects of my antihistamine-decongestant -- I just want my sinuses to get better. But this is subject to change, so I must always pay attention to how I'm feeling and to my motivations.

What is your experience with taking medicine in recovery? Please share your thoughts.

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APA Reference
Lesley, K. (2014, October 13). Potentially Addictive Cold Medication and Substance Abuse, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 25 from

Author: Kira Lesley

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