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Health & Parenting

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Report: Cold Drugs Used to Get High

Study Shows 1 in 20 Young People Abuse Cough, Cold Medicines
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Jan. 10, 2008 -- More than 5% of adolescents and young adults have used readily available cough and cold medicines to get high, a federal report issued Wednesday concludes.

It warns that 3.1 million children and adults between 12 and 25 years of age abused over-the-counter cold remedies in 2006, a figure health officials said should be cause for concern among parents.

Many popular cough and cold medicines use an active ingredient called dextromethorphan. The drug is approved by the FDA, but in high doses it can produce a "dissociative" high similar to the one delivered by PCP and other hallucinogens, according to the report.

The statistics come from a larger government survey on drug abuse that asked about over-the-counter cold medicine abuse for the first time. The fact that more than 3 million young persons -- including 4.3% of girls aged 12 to 17 -- acknowledged abusing cold medicines "is a big issue," H. Westley Clark, MD, director of the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, tells WebMD.

Among survey respondents who said they had abused a number of popular cough and cold medicines in the past year:

  • 31% said they'd misused NyQuil products
  • 18% said they'd misused Coricidin products
  • 18% said they'd misused Robitussin products
  • 39% said they'd misused other over-the counter medications

'Kids All Know About it'

An estimated 95 million packages of cough and cold medicine are sold in the U.S. each year for a total of $311 million, according to the Consumer Health Products Association, an industry group. The products are easy to buy over-the-counter, and many stores don't require proof-of-age ID to buy them.

"Parents tend to be surprised by (high abuse numbers), but their kids all know about it," Linda Suydam, CHPA's president, tells WebMD. "All of the big retailers have voluntary efforts to card people."

If children experience a sudden lack of physical coordination, are vomiting, or have abdominal pain, abuse "is one thing to have in the back of your mind," Clark says.

The FDA recently held a series of high-profile hearings looking at whether cold and cough medicines are safe and effective for widespread use. An FDA advisory committee in October concluded that the drugs should not be given to children under age 6.

Suydam says Wednesday's report had "no bearing" on the FDA's ongoing questions of whether the risks of cough and cold medicines outweigh the benefits.

Clark says parents should also keep an eye on unused cold medicines in their cabinets to be sure they're not being misused. But researchers still don't know how many youngsters find the products at home vs. buying it at the store.

"The study doesn't reveal that," he says.

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