Over-the-Counter Drugs — Abuse Where You Least Expect

Think that drug abuse among teens is limited to illegal substances like marijuana and club drugs such as Ecstasy? Think again.

If you’re like most parents, you’re probably not aware that a number of over-the-counter (OTC) products can potentially be abused by teens looking to get high. But it’s important to educate yourself about the potential abuse of consumer products found right in your home. It is important to know the facts about OTC product and medication abuse and make a habit of closely monitoring the use of certain household substances. Talk with preteens and teens about the proper use of all medications (including those that are available over the counter) and the health risks associated with their abuse.

One category of products sometimes abused by teenagers that few parents know about is OTC cough and cold remedies. The OTC cough and cold medications available in your local pharmacy, supermarket or convenience store are safe and effective when used as directed. But some youth are drawn to an ingredient found in nearly half of these medications called dextromethorphan, or DXM. When taken in excessive doses, dextromethorphan can produce a high or cause psychoactive effects.

What is dextromethorphan or DXM?
Dextromethorphan is a cough-suppressing ingredient in a variety of OTC cold and cough medications. It is found in more than 125 OTC products and comes in various forms, most commonly in cough suppressants in caplet or liquid form.

Why are teens abusing products that contain dextromethorphan?

Dextromethorphan is a safe and effective cough suppressant when used as indicated on the product label. However, when taken in doses that far exceed the amount recommended, the ingredient may produce feelings of euphoria that some seek to get “high.” A teenager looking to get high or experiment with drugs may turn to OTC cough and cold preparations that contain dextromethorphan because they are readily available at home or the local drug store. Dextromethorphan can also be purchased in a bulk powder form on the Internet. Some Web sites encourage teenagers to abuse dextromethorphan and actually offer “recipes” for the best way to achieve a high.

What does dextromethorphan do?
Depending on the dose, DXM’s effects vary. Misuse of the drug creates both depressant and mild hallucinogenic effects. Users report a set of distinct dose-dependent “plateaus” ranging from a mild stimulant effect with distorted visual perceptions at low does to a sense of complete dissociation from one’s body. If a child consumes large doses of a product containing dextromethorphan, it may cause a number of adverse effects, including impaired judgment and mental performance, loss of coordination, dizziness, nausea, hot flashes, dissociation, and hallucinations.

Another major concern is the risk incurred when abusers get high and engage in activities requiring reasonable judgment and quick reactions, like driving or swimming. The effects induced by overdose of DXM can make these activities deadly.

How can I tell if my child is abusing dextromethorphan?
You should be concerned if you notice that your child is taking excessive amounts of a cold and flu remedy, or if he or she continues to take medicine even after symptoms have subsided. Likewise, if cough and cold medications seem to disappear from the medicine cabinet or if you find packages of cough and cold preparations in the child’s room or backpack, he or she may be abusing the product.

What else can I do?
Talking with teens and staying in touch with their lives are the first steps to keeping them free from abusing consumer products and medications. Following are a few basic preventative steps that you can take to help your child understand the importance of using OTC medications responsibly and help discourage abuse of dextromethorphan.

Talk to your child. Speak with your children often about the importance of carefully following directions on the labels of all OTC medications. Help them understand the dangers of abusing OTC cough and cold medications.

Be mindful of the season. Your child can benefit from medicinal relief of cough, cold, and flu symptoms by taking OTC cough and cold preparations according to the instructions on the manufacturer’s label. But be aware if your child is using cough and cold medications outside of cold and flu season or if he or she continues to self-medicate after symptoms have subsided.

Check your home. Take a quick inventory of all consumer products kept in your home. Be aware of the products in your medicine cabinet, and ask questions if you notice that any products are used frequently or disappear.

Monitor your child’s Internet use. Unfortunately, there are Internet sources that sell dextromethorphan in a bulk powder form or encourage teens to share their experiences with abusing dextromethorphan. These individual sites are not regulated so it becomes increasingly imperative that you be aware of where your child is getting information on the Internet, what sites he/she is spending time on, or with whom he/she may be communicating. Ask them why they think the information that appears there is true or false. Do they think the source is credible? Ensure your child’s Internet time is properly supervised.

Source: Scientific information provided by The National Institute on Drug Abuse

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