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Over the Counter Drug Abuse

There is a trend among teens and young adults of over the counter drug abuse. They are abusing over the counter cough and cold medications containing dextromethorphan, or DXM. This drug, when taken in excessive amounts, can produce a high. It can also have dangerous effects including seizures and even death. In very large quantities, DXM can cause effects similar to that of Ketamine and PCP by affecting similar sites in the brain. These effects can include impaired motor function, numbness, nausea/vomiting, and increased heart rate and blood pressure. On rare occasions, hypoxic brain damage has occurred due to the combination of DXM with decongestants often found in these medications.

It is hard to escape the painful irony that the very medications that were developed to solve problems are providing another more serious one, over the counter drug abuse. The ones suffering are the teenagers who are particularly susceptible to a drug option that can be easily purchased without prescription or a drug dealer.

Due to the growing concern about over the counter drug abuse, some drug stores such as Walgreens voluntarily prohibit teens from purchasing any product containing DXM. A spokeswoman for Walgreens said the restriction came last year after the company noticed teens buying up to ten packages at a time. Rite Aid limits the number of such products on store shelves. But for many kids getting the product is as easy as opening their home medicine cabinet.

Teen OTC Abuse

Over the counter drug abuse is perhaps most common among young teens ranging from ages 13 to 16. In fact, approximately 1 out of every 11 teens has abused some sort of over the counter medicine. Also, the results of a Utah Poison Control Study conducted between 1990 and 1999 showed that 38% of recreational drug abuse among children and teens involved nonprescription drugs.

Each year the Monitoring the Future Organization surveys and assesses the extent of drug use among 8th, 10th, and 12th graders nationwide. In 2007, a question about the use of cough and cold medicines to get high was asked for the first time.

Rates of abuse in 2007 (%)




Cough Medicine




Talking about OTC Abuse

Talking with your child about the responsible use of over the counter drugs is one of the best ways to keep them safe. Teach your child how to read and follow directions on the labels of all medications, and always monitor your child's use of these substances. These types of medications are meant to help people, not hurt them, so make sure your child knows the health risks of over the counter drug abuse.

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