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Article Summary

Report Examines Teens' Use of Nonprescription Cough and Cold Medicines

About 3.1 million people in the United States aged 12 to 25 (5.3 percent of this age group) have used over-the-counter (non-prescription) cough and cold medicines to get high at least once in their lifetimes, according to a report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

Newly analyzed data from the National Survey of Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) show the number is comparable to those who say they have used LSD (3.1 million), and is significantly greater than the number who reported having tried methamphetamine (2.4 million).

Teen Overdose

Overdosing on many cough and cold medications may result in serious life-threatening adverse reactions. Adverse reactions include blurred vision, loss of physical coordination, intense abdominal pain, vomiting, uncontrolled violent muscle spasms, irregular heartbeat, delirium and death.

The NSDUH survey also found that the number of 12- to-25-year-olds who reported misuse of non-prescription cough and cold medicines in the past year (1 million) exceeded the number claiming to have used methamphetamine (740,000) and LSD (485,000) in the past year. The number was somewhat lower than the number of young people reporting that they had used the drug Ecstasy (1.5 million) in the past year.

The survey, conducted by SAMHSA, is the largest of its kind and involves interviewing nearly 67,000 people from around the nation, including almost 45,000 persons aged 12 to 25.

Teen Misuse of Drugs

Patterns of misuse of non-prescription drugs varied among demographic groups. Females aged 12 to 17 were more likely than their male counterparts to have misused these drugs within the past year (2.3 percent vs. 1.5 percent). But among those aged 18 to 25, more males had misused these drugs in the past year than females (1.8 percent vs. 1.3 percent). Among all persons aged 12 to 25, the rate of past year misuse among whites (2.1 percent) was three times higher than among blacks (0.6 percent) and significantly higher than among Hispanics (1.4 percent).

"While increasing attention has been paid to the public health risk of prescription drug abuse, we also need to be aware of the growing dangers of misuse of over-the-counter cough and cold medications, especially among young people," said SAMHSA Administrator Terry Cline, Ph.D. "The scope and danger posed by these medications requires a broad scale public health campaign?a campaign involving everyone, including the medical community, industry, parents and young people."

Although non-prescription cough and cold medications are generally safe when taken for medicinal purposes and as directed on their labeling, they can induce severe dissociative, "out-of-body" experiences when they are consumed in amounts far in excess of their recommended dosages. These reactions are similar to the effects of the well-known hallucinogens phencyclidine (PCP) and ketamine ("Special K").

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