Updated March 30, 2019
When most people think of drug addiction, they associate it with illicit drugs like cocaine, heroin, or crystal meth, or they think of prescription drugs like Fentanyl, OxyContin, and morphine. But while it’s true that millions of Americans struggle with addiction to drugs that are either illegal or available only with a prescription, the reality is that over-the-counter medications are a big problem in this country. Non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs like Advil, known as NSAIDs, can be addictive— but in different ways than drugs that inherently have addictive qualities. After all, if a behavior such as gambling, which does not rely on a chemical substance, can be habit forming, so can non-narcotic medicine. The process of taking the drug paired with the feelings or “reward” it brings, can be addictive.
Is Advil Addictive? What The Drug Companies Say
Many people mistakenly believe that over-the-counter, also known as OTC, medications can’t be abused because these drugs don’t cause any sort of intoxication like alcohol and many street drugs do. Unfortunately, this is simply not the case. The fact is that all OTC medications can be addictive in their own way.
According to Pfizer Consumer Healthcare, the company that manufactures and distributes Advil, the answer to the questions, “Is ibuprofen addictive? Will it cause withdrawal symptoms?” is a resounding “no.” Pfizer explains that “Advil is not habit forming, and it does not demonstrate addictive properties. Studies show that ibuprofen affects the body (peripherally active), not the brain (not centrally active),” and that “Advil is non-narcotic”.
The important thing to recognize is that Pfizer has chosen to use a very narrow definition of addiction in their corporate communication materials regarding Advil and ibuprofen, Advil’s active ingredient. Saying that “Advil is not habit forming” ignores much of what addiction medicine experts now know about substance abuse, compulsive behaviors, and mental health issues.
This type of language can fuel misconceptions around addiction, substance abuse, and the risks associated with taking ibuprofen and other common over-the-counter medications.
How Safe Is Advil?
The fact that Advil can be behaviorally addictive should therefore be considered in discussions of the drug’s safety. That said, roughly 50 million Americans suffer from chronic pain, according to the Centers for Disease Control. For many of these Americans, controlling pain without medication is simply not possible; and in theses cases where natural, medication-free methods of pain management do not suffice, choosing an OTC drug like Advil to manage round-the-clock pain remains a safer alternative to highly addictive prescription painkillers like oxycodone or hydrocodone. (Learn more about how prescription painkiller addiction often begins as an attempt to cope with chronic pain.)
Stats on Advil Abuse
While Advil may be a safer alternative to prescription painkillers, taking too much of it can be dangerous. A recent study by the Cleveland Clinic found that taking more than the recommended dose of ibuprophen-containing medications is more common than you might think. The study looked at more than 1,000 NSAID users and found that as many as 15 percent of them exceeded the maximum recommended daily dose.
But excess consumption of NSAIDs poses serious health risks, the researchers said. They warned that the biggest ibuprophen-related complications are usually gastrointestinal in nature. Among them: gastrointestinal bleeding, ulceration, and throwing up blood— all of which can be serious.
Signs of Advil Addiction
Here at FHE Health, we take the view that an addiction isn’t just about getting “high”— it’s a complex combination of behaviors, obsessive thoughts, physical dependencies, and compulsions that can develop in relation to a wide range of substances and situations.
We know that the overuse of any OTC medication, including Advil and other drugs containing ibuprofen, can indeed lead to an addiction that can manifest in similar behavioral signs and symptoms as an addiction, such as:
- Feeling like you can’t get through the day without taking Advil
- Always feeling the need to have a stash of Advil nearby (keeping bottles of Advil in your car, at your office, in your locker, and in multiple spots throughout your home)
- Taking ever-increasing doses of Advil in an attempt to achieve relief from your aches and pains
- Trouble sleeping if you don’t take Advil
- Purchasing large quantities of Advil at a time
- Becoming angry, anxious, or depressed when you don’t have access to Advil
- Experiencing negative changes in your diet and bathroom habits as a result of your Advil use
- Experimenting with different ways to take ibuprofen, such as crushing and snorting the tablets, in an effort to increase the effects they have on you
- Trying out different drug combinations with Advil, such as drinking alcohol while taking Advil, popping caffeine pills in conjunction with ibuprofen, or mixing Advil with other OTC painkillers
Experiencing any number of these symptoms can be a sign that you’re addicted to Advil.
Ibuprofen and Rebound Headaches – The Vicious Cycle
While taking an over-the-counter analgesic like Advil, aspirin, or acetaminophen on occasion to treat a headache is generally considered safe, relying on these medications too much can actually make the pain and discomfort worse.
A phenomenon known as “rebound headaches” can result when analgesic drugs like Advil are used too frequently, or taken in doses that exceed what the manufacturer recommends. According to the Cleveland Clinic, “when the pain reliever wears off, you may experience a withdrawal reaction, prompting you to take more medication.” Unfortunately, this can trigger even more discomfort, leading to “the desire to take yet more medication.” As a result, “the cycle continues until you start to suffer from chronic daily headaches, with more frequent headaches and more severe pain.”
Ibuprofen, the active ingredient in Advil, is among the drugs that are known to trigger rebound headaches when taken in a way that’s “off-label,” such as in larger doses or more often than is recommended on the label. The Cleveland Clinic explains that “rebound headaches are a progressive syndrome, meaning that they will continue to get worse until you receive the proper treatment,” and that “some patients may need to be detoxified under more carefully monitored medical conditions” in order to deal with their Advil dependency.
Side Effects of Ibuprofen – Advil, Motrin and Other NSAIDs
Ibuprofen use can cause a host of uncomfortable side effects ranging from constipation and nausea to dizziness, rashes, itching, and swelling around the eyes, face, and hands. When people take Advil in an effort to relieve swelling, headaches, and pain, and instead experience side effects, they often mistakenly believe that they need a bigger dose to achieve the results they are seeking.
According to the Alcohol and Drug Foundation, long-term use of ibuprofen can lead to some serious, life-threatening conditions such as damage to the kidney and liver. (Like all NSAIDs, Advil is processed through the liver.)
Chronic Advil users also face an increased risk of heart attack when compared to those who don’t take ibuprofen on a regular basis, and bleeding in the stomach and digestive tract can also occur with prolonged use.
Ibuprofen Treatment and Help
Treatment for a behavioral or “process” addiction, (like compulsive use of ibuprofen), can often be effective at helping people break free of a harmful habit that’s destroying their quality of life. Usually, patients benefit most from an initial period of detox from the substance, immediately followed by inpatient or outpatient treatment or both (in succession of one another). During treatment, patients receive individual and group therapies that address the causes of their compulsive behaviors, teach them new coping skills, and help them identify and replace the unhealthy thought patterns that have been triggering these unhealthy behaviors.
Upon completion of rehab, many patients do well to continue with longer-term individual therapy on a regular basis. This helps them maintain and reinforce their recovery and lower their risks of relapse. (Research has also shown that longer-term treatment is associated with better rates of recovery.)
Think You’re Addicted to Advil? We’re Here to Help
If you’re concerned about how much ibuprofen you’re taking and the impact your Advil use is having on your health, it’s possible you may be struggling with a behavioral addiction to Advil. We’re here to help. Call us at FHE Health. Our team of compassionate, experienced addiction experts is available to speak with you about your concerns— 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.