Getting Hooked on Cough Medicine

Michelle Rolle investigates substance abuse for the Department of Social Services in Yonkers, New York. When she wrote this, she was the adolescent coordinator at the Mt. Kisco Clinic of the Lexington Center for Recovery.

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on June 14, 2012
2 min read

We've been seeing kids in our center who are abusing over-the-counter cough medicine for a few years now -- beginning at about the same time the media started to talk about it a lot. When we'd network at the schools, we'd hear from the student assistance counselors that it was becoming a problem.

By the time a kid comes to us, they're usually using other drugs as well, but this is often the first drug they tried. A lot of cough medicine users are younger and still in the experimental stage.

Don't think that your child would never take cough pills or syrup out of your medicine cabinet just because she's only 12 or 13! Studies show that most kids who abuse cough medicine are between 12 and 17.

Cough medicine is a word-of-mouth drug. It's usually taken in spurts periodically, but not often, to enhance the effects of other primary drugs like marijuana or alcohol. It's easily bought and easily transferred from one kid to another. They'll take it at home in their room after a parent goes to bed. You think they're on the computer and they're drinking cough syrup.

Kids feel that because it's in the medicine cabinet or at the drugstore that it must not be too bad. They say, "What's the big deal? It's only cough syrup!" But the fact is that drinking a whole bottle of it can really do a number on them in terms of producing hallucinations, drowsiness, and severe behavioral changes.

We've had two emergency room visits recently in which the kids were hallucinating and appearing to be psychotic. They don't know where they are or who they are, and the parents are terrified and have no idea what's going on.

There's a lot of change in mood, behavior, attitude, and emotions.

Often that's why kids choose to abuse cough medicine. They feel that it's something their parents or anyone in authority won't be able to detect. And they can always just say that they had a cold and didn't feel well, and that's why they took it.

I would advise parents to avoid the "not my child" syndrome. It's putting your head in the sand. Kids are so influenced by other kids, even that child who would never think of doing it. Well, if they want to belong, and somebody in their group is doing it and they're offered it, it's very common for them to do it -- just to be part of the group.

Prepare your child. Teach them refusal skills. Communicate all the time, about everything -- not just drugs. Be more involved in asking your child how they feel and what they're going through. Have that door open for anything.