If you’re raising a teenager and you don’t know much about DXM or cough medicine abuse, you’re hardly alone. DXM, or dextromethorphan, is a common ingredient in cough and combination cold medicines. Teens, however, have found another use for cough medicine -- getting high. Taking huge doses of cough medicine to get high may sound revolting. In fact, you might assume it’s just an obscure fringe thing.
But it’s not. A 2008 study found that one in 10 American teenagers has abused products with DXM to get high, making it more popular in that age group than cocaine, ecstasy, LSD, and meth. Although DXM products are quite safe when taken as recommended, high doses can cause hallucinogenic trips -- and pose serious risks.
DXM is in almost half of all of the OTC drugs sold in the U.S. For teens experimenting with drugs, DXM is cheap, easy to get, and legal.
Surprised? Many parents are.
“A lot of parents just have no idea,” says Deborah Levine MD, clinical assistant professor of pediatrics and emergency medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center. “Alarms would sound if they ever found an empty beer can in a teenager’s car, but they wouldn’t think twice about an empty bottle of cough syrup or used-up package of tablets.”
As a conscientious parent, you may occasionally check the bottles in the liquor cabinet, or sniff for the scent of pot. It’s time to also pay attention to what’s in your medicine cabinet. Here’s what parents need to know about DXM abuse.
Understanding DXM Abuse
DXM – or dextromethorphan – was introduced in the U.S. in the 1950s, and is the most commonly used cough suppressant in the U.S. DXM is now in more than 125 drugs for cough, cold, and flu, including many household names such as Dimetapp DM, Nyquil, Robitussin, Coricidin, Delsym, Zicam, Theraflu, and Vick’s Formula 44. It’s also used in store brands of cough and cold medicines, such as Wal-Tussin or Wal-Flu sold at Walgreen’s. It’s used in cough syrups, capsules, lozenges, tablets, and gelcaps.
At normal doses, DXM is quite safe. Dextromethorphan affects the brain, specifically the region that controls coughing. However, at high doses – as much as 10 to 50 times the suggested amount – DXM can cause hallucinatory and dissociative effects similar to those of PCP or ketamine (special K.) Some people assume that teens who abuse cough medicine are after the alcohol content, but they’re really after DXM.
Although DXM abuse is not new, the scope has been changing. In California, rates of DXM cases reported to poison control centers jumped by 10 times between 1999-2004. Among children aged 9-17, it increased by 15 times. More recent national surveys have shown DXM abuse holding steady or dropping slightly, but it remains a serious problem.