This article originally appeared on VICE Spain
A few years ago, Raquel*, 22, bought an over-the-counter nasal spray that contained the strong decongestant oxymetazoline – a stimulant she knew could potentially have an addictive effect. "I had a friend who had been taking it for years, to the point where he carried around a bottle of nasal spray everywhere he went," she tells me. "When I realised I was using it for much longer than prescribed, I went back to the pharmacy."
Raquel explained to the pharmacist that she used the spray every day before bed, because she feared she suddenly wouldn't be able to breathe in her sleep. On top of that, she used the inhaler several times a day, regardless of whether she had a blocked nose or not. "The pharmacist warned me to not suddenly give it up completely, but instead wean off slowly by combining it with a nasal spray with natural decongestants," Raquel explains. "The pharmacist also told me that my problem was rather common so I shouldn't worry too much about it."
"Nasal sprays work by stimulating the nervous system into forcing blood out of the nose tissue, which gets rid of the swelling that causes the blockage," Dr Marina Pacheco tells me. The instant relief that follows is what gets people hooked, as well as the fact that our bodies start relying on the spray to do what it should be doing naturally.
"The more tolerant of an artificial stimulant like oxymetazoline we get, the more of it we need to achieve the same effect. So when you stop, your natural defences are too low to keep your nose from getting blocked up all the time, and you want the relief of the spray back," Dr Pacheco adds.
I only have to casually mention that I'm working on an article on nasal spray for a colleague to confess that he has had issues quitting it, and so had his dad. They're not alone – the Spanish Facebook group "Adictos al Respibien" (Nasal spray addicts) is a support group of sorts, with over 500 members sharing their experiences inhaling oxymetazoline and offering each other advice on how to quit.
"I set the the page up nine years ago as a bit of a joke," says the group's founder, David*. "I wanted to know if I was the only person in the world who couldn't control their use of nasal spray. But to my surprise, in the days that followed, loads of people were joining to share their stories. There's still a jokey side to the page, but the group also helps people deal with the daily issues that their dependency on this legal drug can create."
For years, Lara*, a member of David's Facebook group, wouldn't leave her house without a bottle of nasal spray. "The bottle almost became an extension of my body," she remembers. "You know things are getting bad when you're going to the 24-hour pharmacy at 3AM to get a new one. Or when you're on holiday in a country like France and can't find your favourite spray there anywhere, so all you want to do is go home."
To hide her obsession from her local pharmacist, she would always go to different pharmacies across town to pick up the spray. She eventually beat her dependency, but she's still an active contributor to the nasal spray addicts' community – she comments regularly with the tips and tricks that helped her move on.
Álvaro*, 33, went through one bottle of oxymetazoline-based spray every three days for 13 years until he started weaning off it earlier this year. "My dad and I were using it all the time," he explains. "Nobody warned us that it could have such an addictive effect."
According to Álvaro, his withdrawal symptoms have mainly involved feelings of extreme anxiety. "My heartbeat would shoot up, I'd start feeling nervous and irritable, and would easily get into fights with my partner," he says. "It was just this constant problem."
Elena*, 44, is another active members of the group. She started using nasal spray two years ago, but has recently come off it entirely. "When I gave up smoking I felt anxious, but it was on a completely different level to the anxiety I felt coming off oxymetazoline," she confesses. "Every day without cigarettes felt like a positive achievement – a reason to be proud of myself. With this, though, I just couldn't wait for each day to be over. But the nights were even worse – I was constantly worried I would suddenly not be able to breathe."
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Christian has been taking oxymetazoline for 20 years – as a child he suffered from asthma and a range of allergies, but now he's dealing with chronic hay fever. "Because of the spray, I've become hypersensitive to smells, my eyes well up and I sneeze all the time. But I can't play sports without my spray, and even just walking around it can be difficult for me to breathe properly and comfortably."
Christian, Lara, Álvaro, Elena and David have all had different experiences trying to kick their habit. But when I ask them individually what advice they would give someone who's thinking about using a nasal spray with oxymetazoline for the first time, their answers are unanimous: "Don't."
*Last names have been removed to protect interviewees' identities
This article originally appeared on VICE ES.
This article originally appeared on VICE ES.