Cough Medicine Abuse: A Checklist for Parents

Teen abuse of over-the-counter cough and cold medicines is a widespread and serious issue. As a parent, you may not have any idea how you can prevent it. Here's hands-on advice for what you should do, starting right now.

  • Know which drugs are being abused. If you don’t have a clue about cough and cold medicine abuse, it's time to get one. The biggest problem is with medicines that contain dextromethorphan (often abbreviated as DXM), which is found in more than 125 over-the-counter medicines sold to treat the symptoms of cough and colds. DXM is in common brands such as Coricidin, Dimetapp DM, Nyquil, Robitussin DM, Robitussin CF, and Robitussin Cough and Cold, as well as store brands for cough and cold medicines. Many stores have started to keep cough and cold remedies behind the counter to help reduce access and the potential for teen abuse of these medications.
  • Learn the slang. Find out what teens are calling these drugs. DXM goes by many names - tussin, skittles, robo, CCC, triple C, dex syrup, and red devils, to name a few. If you didn’t know that, your kids could be talking about cough medicine abuse while you drive them home in the carpool, and you'd have no idea. Monitor their behavior, be aware if they tend to go to grocery stores prior to going out with friends, and look for empty bottles of cough syrup or cough and cold pill packs.
  • Look in your medicine cabinet. No parent wants to be a drug supplier for his or her children. Treat your medicine cabinet like your liquor cabinet: know what's in it and keep track. Just like you did when your child was a baby, you may need to remove some medications to a place where your kids won't be able to get them.
  • Get rid of medicines you don’t use. Don’t keep them around just in case - many are probably expired, anyway. If you're sick and need a cough or combination cold medicine, get only what you need and dispose of what's left when you're feeling better.
  • Talk to other parents. Share what you know about cough medicine abuse with other parents, particularly the parents of your teen's friends. Coordinate your efforts. If you're cleaning out your medicine cabinet, get the parents of your teen's friends to do the same. By making it a community effort, you'll help keep everyone safer.
  • Model good behavior. You may be careless with how you use medication yourself. If your headache is really bad, you may double the recommended dose. If your back goes out, you might bum a few narcotic painkillers from a friend who had them left over after dental surgery. These medications have real risks when not taken appropriately. What's more, your kids are watching. If you don't treat these medicines with respect - and only use them as recommended - why should you assume your teens will?
  • Monitor your child's use of the Internet. Know what your child is looking at on the Internet. There are web sites out there that present, in astonishing detail, information about cough medicine abuse with tips on specific dosages and brands.
  • Think about your community. Even if your children are too young for drug abuse, what about your nieces and nephews? Or babysitters? By clearing your house of unnecessary medication, you're helping them, too.
  • Talk to your teen. When parents talk to their children a lot about drug abuse, it reduces the risk that they will use drugs. So, don't beat around the bush. Talk to your kids directly about the risks of drug abuse, and mention cough medicine abuse specifically. Just because medicines come from a drugstore or a pharmacist doesn't mean they are risk-free.
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Renee A. Alli, MD on October 20, 2018



Virginia Cox, senior vice president, communications and strategic initiatives, Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA), Washington D.C.

Hallie Deaktor, director of public affairs, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, New York City.

General Arthur T. Dean, chairman and CEO, Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA), Alexandria, Va.

Barb Kochanowski, PhD, vice president, regulatory affairs, Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA), Washington, D.C.

Deborah Levine, MD, clinical assistant professor of pediatrics and emergency medicine, NYU Langone Medical Center.

MedicineNet web site: ''Teen Deaths May Be from DXM in Cough Medicines.''

U.S. Department of Justice web site: ''Intelligence Bulletin DXM (Dextromethorphan), October, 2004.''

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