Spotting Teen Drug Abuse of Cough Medicine: Tips for Parents

How do you know if your teen is abusing cough or cold medicines? Experts say the signs of teen drug abuse or misuse tend to be the same, regardless of the type of drug being abused, whether legal or illegal. Here are some signs of teen drug abuse to look for:

  • Grades. Have your teen's grades or study habits declined? Sometimes, drug abuse can send a straight-A student to the verge of flunking out. Often, a sign of drug abuse is a slump that's not quite so dramatic. A teenager might become less diligent about handing in assignments, forget to study for tests, stop participating in class, or skip classes altogether.
  • Friends. Has your teen stopped hanging around with usual friends? Have new faces - including some that might make you uneasy -- suddenly started to appear? Your teenager may abandon long-term friends, especially if they are not involved in the same abusive behavior.
  • Mood. Have you noticed mood swings in your teen? Has your teenager become oddly manic, suddenly furious, sad, or listless? These can sometimes be a sign of drug abuse. You may notice that your teen also spends more time alone, away from family.
  • Appearance. Has your teen's appearance changed significantly? You may notice that your teen has been wearing the same shirt for a few days, stopped showering regularly, or completely changed his or her style of clothing.
  • Eating. Have you noticed any big changes in how your teen is eating, either more or less? You should not ignore any changes in weight.
  • Sleep. Has your teen's sleep pattern changed? Depending on the drug being abused, he or she might suddenly seem to sleep all day - or never seem to sleep at all.
  • Secretiveness. Has your teen become excessively secretive about after-school activities, or strangely anxious if you get anywhere near his or her belongings?
  • Sickness. Does your teen frequently ask for cough or cold medicine? Obviously, you don’t want to dismiss signs that your child is sick with a cold or respiratory infection. But if your teen is always demanding medicine for a cough, it could be a sign of drug abuse.
  • Hidden trash. Have you found empty bottles of medicine or empty packages in the trash? If your teen is buying cough medicine on his own, and using it without telling you, it could be a sign of drug abuse.

These signs don't prove your teen is abusing over-the-counter drugs; after all, mood swings, changes in sleep patterns, and secretiveness are a part of adolescence. But if you notice anything different about your child, it may be time for a talk. Read on to learn more about how to address the subject with him or her.


OTC Drug Abuse: Next Steps

Here's some guidance on what to do before you confront your son or daughter about over-the-counter drug abuse.

  • Don’t react impulsively. Don’t storm into your teen's room and start yelling. If you take that approach, you may regret it. Your teen may become immediately defensive. Instead, take some time to think about what you want to say.
  • Gather evidence. No, you don't need incontrovertible proof your child is abusing drugs; you don't need to set up an elaborate sting. But you may feel more confident if you can point to some evidence backing up your accusation. That evidence could be an empty bottle of cough medicine you find in your teen's room or in the medicine cabinet. But it might just include observations you've made that fit with OTC drug abuse, like odd behavior changes.
  • Do some research. Learn the facts about teen drug abuse of cough and cold medicine. Know which drugs are being abused, and why they're dangerous. You need to prove that you know what you're talking about.
  • Be prepared to have a discussion. Your job now is not just to pass judgment, mete out punishment, and leave the room. You need to talk to your teen. It may take some work - and a few tries - but you need to explain why you're so concerned about OTC drug abuse.
  • Know what your policy is. Before you start the conversation, you need to have settled on a firm set of household rules concerning drug abuse. Spell them out clearly. You also need to know exactly what your plan is should the rules be violated.
  • Get support. You'll feel more confident if you have backup. Obviously, you and your spouse should be on the same page. But you might also find it helpful to talk over the situation with others -- friends, a therapist or counselor who specializes in drug abuse, or a clergy member -- both before and after confronting your teen.
  • Choose the right time. Don't delve into this discussion abruptly, 10 minutes before the bus arrives, or when your teen is in the middle of playing a video game. Do it when you'll both have the time to hash it out. Certainly, don't try to engage if your teen actually seems high.


After you've talked, it’s easy to get a false sense of security, to assume that the issue is settled. But it's not. Even if your teen earnestly agrees to stop OTC medicine abuse, it's not over. The same reasons, the same pressures that led your teenager to start abusing drugs in the first place, are still there.

So instead, you need to check in regularly and have an ongoing dialogue. This isn't the end. Make this conversation the first of many.


WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Renee A. Alli, MD on October 23, 2018


SOURCES: 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.

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

Parents: The Anti-Drug web site, ''Suspect Your Teen is Using Drugs or Drinking?"

© 2018 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.


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