Skip to content
This content is from an educational collaboration between WebMD Editorial and StopMedicineAbuse.org.

Understanding DXM Abuse continued...

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.

DXM Abuse: Why Is It Popular?

Why are teens turning to DXM abuse? Experts say there are a number of reasons.

  • DXM is easy to get. The sheer number of products that contain DXM makes it tempting. If you don’t have at least one in your medicine cabinet right now, your neighbor does. Some of the most commonly abused drugs are not cough syrups – which are hard to keep down – but higher-dose tablets, such as Coricidin and store brands such as Walgreen’s Flu BP. “It’s much easier to take in high doses than cough syrup,” Levine tells WebMD.
  • DXM is cheap. Compared to buying illicit drugs from a dealer, getting a bottle of cough syrup or a packet of tablets is a bargain. DXM is a habit that’s easy to support with babysitting money. And for kids sneaking their DXM from home -- or shoplifting -- it’s free.
  • Cough medicine seems safer. Many teens try DXM because they assume -- incorrectly -- that even at high doses it still must be safer than illicit drugs. Although they might be uneasy about what they’d get from a shady dealer on a street corner, they’re comfortable trying a legal, brand name medicine they got in a brightly-lit drugstore. And because the medicine is legal, they can carry it with them, or use it on the street. “It’s a kind of sick consumer savvy,” says Hallie Deaktor, director of public affairs at the Partnership for a Drug-Free America in New York City. Unfortunately, Deaktor often sees that misconception about DXM abuse reflected in parents too. “I talk to some parents, and they tell me how relieved they are that their kids are abusing cough syrup instead of illegal drugs,” says Deaktor. “They have no idea how serious the risks are.”
  •  DXM is popular. A whole subculture has risen up around DXM abuse. There’s a specialized jargon for its use, like robo-tripping, sheeting, dexing, and skittling. There are many more terms for the drug itself: CCCs, dex, red devils, robo, skittles, tussin, syrup, and velvet. On the Internet, there are lengthy guides outlining DXM abuse, with detailed tips about the pros and cons of different brands and formulations.
  • Their parents don’t know. According to surveys, even among parents who diligently have the “drug talk” with their kids, fewer than one in five think to mention DXM abuse. “I talk to a lot of parents who just don’t get it,” says Deaktor. “Many just can’t get their brains around the idea that anyone would want to drink a whole bottle of cough syrup. It just seems too disgusting.” (After all, this is the same medicine that parents had to beg their kids to take when they were sick.)

Preparing for Middle School

Tips to help your tween cope with this exciting but risky time.
View slideshow

WebMD Video Series

Click here to wach video: Cough Syrup Drug Abuse

1 in 10 teens abuse cough medicine. It's dangerous, even deadly. Is your teen in danger?

Click here to watch video: Cough Syrup Drug Abuse