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Self-medication is the use of drugs, sometimes prescription drug sometimes illicit, to treat a perceived or real malady, often of a psychological nature without consultation with medical personnel.

Over-the-counter drugs are a form of self medication. The buyer diagnoses their own illness and buys a specific nonprescription drug to treat it. The World Self-Medication Industry (WSMI) define self-medication as the treatment of common health problems with medicines especially designed and labeled for use without medical supervision and approved as safe and effective for such use.

A person may also self-medicate by taking more or less than the recommended dose of a drug.

Some mental illness sufferers attempt to correct their illnesses by use of alcohol, tobacco, cannabis, or other mind-altering drugs. While this may provide immediate relief of some symptoms such as anxiety, it may evoke and/or exacerbate some symptoms of several kinds of mental illnesses that are already latently present, and may lead to addiction/dependence, among other side effects of long-term use of the drug.

The theory that drug dependence or addiction results from self-medication for the distress caused by a pre-existing condition was introduced in 1974 by David F. Duncan and Edward J. Khantzian in independent publications. This theory has come to be known as the self-medication hypothesis. For example, sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder are prone to self-medication, as well as many individual without this diagnosis which have suffered from (mental) trauma.

Occasionally an individual will attempt self-medication for physical illnesses. For example, it is believed that Kurt Cobain's use of heroin partially stemmed from a painful stomach condition.

The current phenomenon in many Western societies of the widespread usage of vitamins, herbs, and other over-the-counter "supplements"--usually without the advice, supervision, or even knowledge of any licensed health professional--is another possible example of self-medication. Some observers of health behavior and medical affairs have speculated that this trend may arise from the desire of laymen to feel more in control of their own health--rather than relying on the traditional medical establishment, whose motives are sometimes seen as suspect. The extraordinary increases in the cost of traditional health care in recent decades--doctors, hospitals, prescriptions, etc.-- causes some individuals to desperately try to find more affordable alternatives to treat or prevent their own afflictions, though this pursuit sometimes proves to be ineffective and expensive.

Self medication with alcohol

Self medication and drugs of addiction

See also

References & Bibliography

Key texts


  • Albanese, M. J., & Khantzian, E. J. (2002). Self-medication theory and modified dynamic group therapy. New York, NY: Haworth Press.
  • Crawley, B. (1993). Self-medication and the elderly. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.
  • Harchik, A. E. (1994). Self-medication skills. Baltimore, MD: Paul H Brookes Publishing.
  • Weiss, R. D., & Mirin, S. M. (1997). Substance abuse as an attempt at self-medication. New York, NY: New York University Press.


  • Achalu, ED (2002).The self-medication hypothesis: a review of the two major theories and the research evidence. SMH: Recent Developments on the Self-Medication Hypothesis, 1(10), id1. [1]
  • Blenkinsopp A, Bradley C (1996). Over the counter drugs: the future for self medication. British Medical Journal, 312, 835.
  • Duncan DF (1974a). Reinforcement of drug abuse: Implications for prevention. Clinical Toxicology Bulletin, 4(2), 69.
  • Duncan DF (1974b). Drug abuse as a coping mechanism. American Journal of Psychiatry, 131(6), 724.
  • Duncan DF (1975).The acquisition, maintenance and treatment of polydrug dependence: A public health model. Journal of Psychedelic Drugs, 7(2), 201.
  • Hughes CM, McElnay JC, Fleming GF (2001). Benefits and risks of self medication. Drug Safety, 24, 1027
  • Khantzian, EJ, Mack JE, Schatzberg AF (1974). Heroin use as an attempt to cope: clinical observations. American Journal of Psychiatry, 131(2), 160.
  • Khantzian EJ (1985). The self-medication hypothesis of addictive disorders: focus on heroin and cocaine dependence. American Journal of Psychiatry, 142(11), 1259.
  • Khantzian EJ (1990) Self-regulation and self-medication factors in alcoholism and the addictions. similarities and differences. Recent Developments in Alcoholism, 8, 255.
  • Khantzian, E. J. (1997). The self-medication hypothesis of substance use disorders: A reconsideration and recent applications: Harvard Review of Psychiatry Vol 4(5) Jan-Feb 1997, 231-244.
  • Khantzian, E. J. (2003). The Self-Medication Hypothesis Revisited: The Dually Diagnosed Patient: Primary Psychiatry Vol 10(9) Sep 2003, 47-48, 53-54.
  • Khantzian, E. J. (2003). Understanding Addictive Vulnerability: An Evolving Psychodynamic Perspective: Neuro-Psychoanalysis Vol 5(1) 2003, 5-21.
  • Khantzian, E. J. (2003). "Understanding Addictive Vulnerability: An Evolving Psychodynamic Perspective": Response to Commentaries: Neuro-Psychoanalysis Vol 5(1) 2003, 53-56.
  • Wazaify M, Shields E, Hughes CM, McElnay JC (2005). Societal perspectives on over-the-counter (OTC) medicines. Family Practice, 22: 170-176.

Additional material


  • Blazer, D. G. (2004). Alcohol and Drug Problems. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing, Inc.
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  • Rand, C. S., & Weeks, K. (1998). Measuring adherence with medication regimens in clinical care and research. New York, NY: Springer Publishing Co.


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