Drug and Alcohol - Trends and Statistics

Diphenhydramine Abuse: Signs & Effects

What is Benadryl Abuse?

Diphenhydramine abuse is rare, but it's possible to abuse and become dependent on OTC medications like Benadryl. Learn more about OTC drug abuse now.

Written by

brian-mooreBrian Moore

Content Writer

Reviewed by

jeremy-arztJeremy Arzt

Chief Clinical Officer

Drug and Alcohol

Trends and Statistics

March 24, 2023

Back in 2020, there was a brief trend on Tik Tok called the "Benadryl challenge." Basically, it encouraged viewers to take massive doses of Benadryl, an over-the-counter (OTC) antihistamine medication.

Unfortunately, the challenge resulted in the death of a 15-year-old girl in Oklahoma.

Benadryl is the brand name for diphenhydramine, a very popular medicine commonly taken for seasonal allergies, motion sickness, colds, and coughs. Using the drug as prescribed or according to the label to treat a medical issue is safe. This does not bring about any chances of becoming addicted to the diphenhydramine actively present in it.

However, taking large doses of the drug for the effects it produces can drastically increase the risk of becoming addicted to it. 

In most countries, diphenhydramine can be purchased over the counter for a low price. This often makes it an attractive choice for people looking to experiment with drug abuse. Sadly, the stigma of its danger is frequently overlooked because it is viewed as an over-the-counter medication with medicinal value in low doses. Even though Benadryl is purchasable without a prescription, it can cause drowsiness and sedation.

Abusing diphenhydramine abuse can lead to many negative consequences, including addiction and overdose. People may misuse the medication if they don't read the directions correctly, mix it with alcohol or other narcotics, or take too much of it. Misuse can be dangerous because it can cause severe side effects or an overdose.

Benadryl should only be taken as directed for a short time and by the instructions on the package – just as with any prescription medication.

By the Numbers:

As per the National Library of Medicine, Benadryl, a medication containing diphenhydramine, was identified as one of the 10 most common medications responsible for drug-overdose deaths in 2017. 

What Is Diphenhydramine?

An H1 receptor antagonist, diphenhydramine, blocks the effects of histamine on the body by blocking these receptors in the brain. As a result, the body produces a chemical called histamine that shields the immune system from allergens. When an allergen enters the body, the release of histamine frequently "attacks" the allergen to prevent its impact on physical health. 

However, when a person is highly allergic to something like peanut butter or pollen, their body releases excessive histamine. This can cause the lungs to contract, blood vessels to dilate, a faster heart rate, and the stomach to secrete gastric acid. Because it is an antihistamine, taking diphenhydramine products like Benadryl can stop these effects. It's able to alleviate everything from mildly irritating allergic symptoms to potentially treating anaphylactic shock.

Diphenhydramine in Benadryl

Benadryl was the first antihistamine to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and remains a widely used medicine to treat allergies and symptoms of the common cold. Since then, with time and observations, safe dosages of Benadryl have been well understood. In addition, it is available in different types of formulations – tablets, liquid gels, syrups, and chewable tablets. 

Benadryl contains 25mg of diphenhydramine per every adult dose and 12.5mg for every children's dose. On average, the drug stays in the system of a healthy adult for two days, after which it will be eliminated from the body. The elimination half-life for the medicine ranges from 6 – 12 hours, meaning that half of the drug will be eliminated in 6 – 12 hours after taking a dose of Benadryl. 

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Diphenhydramine Abuse: Precautions to Take When Taking Benadryl

The signs and symptoms of a Benadryl addiction may be similar to those of psychosis, leading to the addiction going unnoticed for a long time. The majority of people use the drug to fall asleep peacefully. However, once the body becomes accustomed to the drug, it will need higher doses to achieve the same results the drug gave initially.

Increasing the dose over time makes the consumer susceptible to a full-blown addiction. Addiction may cause drowsiness and side effects when taken with other medications, like antihistamines and anxiety. In addition, Benadryl can result in dementia, confusion, hallucinations, and an increase in heart rate when consumed by older people.

Unless directed by a qualified doctor, Benadryl should never be used by people with asthma, cardiovascular disease, hyperthyroidism, kidney or liver disease, diabetes, or other health conditions. However, as the drug is readily available to anyone, even children under 18, many believe it is safe enough for consumption to treat colds, coughs, and other flu symptoms. As a result, the transition and potential to addiction may also be overlooked.

Dangers of Diphenhydramine Abuse

The problem with diphenhydramine, just like alcohol, is that it can be purchased easily as an over-the-counter medication. It is purchasable in stores that are sometimes open 24 hours a day. Additionally, diphenhydramine is not considered to be an effective intoxicant, and consuming more than recommended will likely only result in an uncomfortable side effect or an overdose rather than the complete feeling of euphoria.

Diphenhydramine Effects By Dose:

  • 12 times the recommended dose of Benadryl is just under 300mg. Consumption of this amount can lead to a sense of emotional restlessness or even disassociation. 

  • A larger dose of 500mg, 40 times more than recommended, can cause the consumer more adverse effects such as hallucination, delirium, and other symptoms related to overdosing on diphenhydramine. 

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Diphenhydramine Abuse: Signs of Benadryl Addiction

Like most other drugs, Benadryl overuse can affect how the brain works. This is because of the diphenhydramine present in the medication, which has potentially addictive properties. Psychological dependence on Benadryl results from long-term use. As the body develops an increased tolerance to the drug, it requires a larger dose than the initial one to fall asleep or provide its intended effects. 

It is advised to those taking Benadryl to exercise caution in doing so. If one does develop an addiction to the medication, there can be adverse effects that can cause serious health risks. A few of the significant signs and symptoms that can help identify a Benadryl, or more accurately put, a diphenhydramine addiction are:

  • Being unable to sleep without taking the substance 

  • If you skip a dose, you are likely to feel anxious or confused

  • Finding yourself taking Benadryl even to function normally 

  • Your tolerance to the medication will increase drastically 

If you even try to reduce dosage or stop taking it altogether, withdrawal symptoms may start to surface. Studies have shown prolonged diphenhydramine abuse can produce withdrawal symptoms from diphenhydramines/PMC5874453/:

  • Not being able to focus on even the simplest tasks 

  • Experiencing weakness all over the body 

  • The urge to take Benadryl to feel a buzz, or euphoric high 

  • Mood swings

  • Hallucinations

  • Low BP 

  • Depression 

  • Nightmares 

If you observe these signs and symptoms in your behavior or in someone you care for, confront them and tell them that you suspect they may have an addiction to drugs. It is a tough place, but intervention is essential to prevent severe health damage and risks. If you cannot convince them, tell them to see a doctor or professional who can help. 

Side Effects of Diphenhydramine in Benadryl 

Remember that despite having many medical benefits, Benadryl has a few adverse effects that users should beware of. While some of these effects are short-term and soon subside, many can impact you so severely that they last a lifetime. These side-effects of Benadryl addiction can be physical, psychological, or both. 

A few of the most prominent physical health risks of diphenhydramine include the following:

  • Feeling tired and drowsy

  • Having an unusually dry mouth 

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Losing appetite 

  • Suffering from constipation 

  • Difficulty in urinating 

  • Impairment of memory 

  • Blurred vision 

  • Itchy skin 

  • Feeling restless 

  • Lack of coordination 

  • Weakness 

  • Increased heart rate 

  • Angina/chest tightening

  • Erectile dysfunction 

  • Liver and kidney damage 

Psychological side effects of Benadryl addiction can be:

  • Lack of concentration 

  • Feeling more confused than before 

  • Anxiety 

  • Nightmares 

  • Experiencing depression 

  • Extreme mood swings 

  • Heart palpitations

  • Trembling 

  • Double vision

  • Higher risk of dementia in future 

Withdrawal symptoms in someone who is trying to stop abusing Benadryl may be:

  • Not being able to sleep 

  • Bad stomach or even diarrhea 

  • Feeling waves of nausea 

  • Sweating more than usual 

  • Feeling anxious 

  • Feeling irritated 

  • Experiencing psychosis 

  • Reoccurring tremors 

  • Seizures 

If someone is addicted to diphenhydramine, consuming Benadryl in excess for the drug's addictive effects, they may experience some of these side effects. Depending upon different bodies, ages, medical history, frequency and timeline of drug consumption, etc., everyone will be affected by the medication differently.

If you are trying to stop abusing Diphenhydramine and are experiencing withdrawal, the severity of these withdrawal symptoms can be controlled. Tapering off the dosage of Benadryl taken can be a way to do this effectively. 

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Who Is Susceptible to a Diphenhydramine Addiction?

Because over-the-counter medications like Benadryl are easy to obtain, they're often a choice for people who want to experiment with drug abuse but are unable or unwilling to try more traditional drugs of abuse.

While trying to stereotype the average drug user is a mistake, studies have looked at populations of those who abuse diphenhydramine and other OTC medications. One study published in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine discovered some common traits among people who recreationally use OTC drugs:

  • They tended to be younger, caucasian, and female, although this varied based on the individual drug

  • They tended to mix OTC drugs with alcohol

  • They abused OTC drugs because they couldn't get prescription medications and/or illicit drugs

There are other risk factors for developing a diphenhydramine addiction, including:

  • People who take the drug to get rid of insomnia run the risk of developing an addiction

  • As Benadryl is prescribed to Parkinson's patients to alleviate tremors and muscle spasms, they run the risk of becoming dependent on it

  • Benadryl helps schizophrenia patients manage the side effects of antipsychotic medications, which increases their risk of developing an addiction as well

  • People with anxiety also use the medication because it can put them in a state of complete relaxation, but this often leads to addiction as well 

It is essential to remember that addiction is a multifaceted problem and that not everyone who takes Benadryl will develop an addiction. However, it is crucial to seek assistance from an addiction specialist or healthcare provider if you or someone you know is exhibiting signs of a Benadryl addiction. Treatments are available to support recovery and assist with addiction management.

Treatment for Diphenhydramine Addiction/Benadryl Abuse

If you or your loved one has finally accepted that they have an addiction to Benadryl and need professional help, the journey starts then and there. Taking the first step towards help is the most significant part of recovery.

A patient with a Benadryl addiction may need detox or be eligible to enter a rehabilitation program directly. This depends on the severity of their Benadryl addiction. One effective way to curb addiction for patients with mild addiction is to take the drug in smaller doses and, less frequently, gradually tapering it off. However, a person may experience unpleasant withdrawal symptoms if the drug is entirely stopped at once, which could lead to a relapse.

After talking to an addiction counselor, you will be able to understand the type of treatment you require for quick recovery. Get to know the plan you require and stay determined whether inpatient or outpatient treatment. While receiving care, you will be exposed to techniques and recovery treatments such as: 

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Diphenhydramine Abuse Is Drug Use: The Edge Treatment Center Can Help

The Edge Treatment Center has a deep understanding of drug and alcohol addiction. For us, drug abuse isn't about a particular substance, it's about behaviors. Even OTC medicines like Benadryl can be abused, and the effects of large doses of diphenhydramine can create dependence.

Our long-term outpatient drug rehab offers a dedicated dual-diagnosis path. Sometimes, OTC drug abuse is fueled by underlying mental disorders. At The Edge, you'll be able to discover the reasons behind diphenhydramine abuse and learn coping mechanisms where you can live without it.

Diphenhydramine addiction is rare, but it happens. At The Edge Treatment Center, you'll learn how to live without it. Reach out to us today to learn more.

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If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, there is hope. Our team can guide you on your journey to recovery. Call us today.