Teen Cough Medicine Abuse: What You Should Know and What You Can Do

Guest Post by Anita Brikman

As children enter their teenage years, most parents worry about whether they’re misusing alcohol, marijuana and prescription medication. To try and keep our teenagers from using these substances, we educate our kids about the risks, safeguard our homes and watch for signs of abuse.

However, it’s important for parents to be aware of the fact that these are not the only substances teens misuse. Getting “high” by abusing over-the-counter (OTC) cough medicines often goes undetected by parents, but remains a critical issue today. Take a moment to learn about teen medicine abuse, and how you can help prevent it in your home and community.

Here’s what you should know:

 What is it?

Most OTC cough medicines contain the active ingredient dextromethorphan (DXM), which has dissociative and dangerous effects when taken in excess, including hallucinations, vomiting, sweating and memory loss. These risks only increase when DXM is combined with other substances, such as drugs or alcohol.

Who is abusing DXM?

While the abuse of OTC cough medicine doesn’t receive the same media attention as the abuse of alcohol, marijuana or prescription medications, it has become a far too common practice among today’s teens. One in 25 teens reports getting “high” by consuming up to 25 times the suggested dose of cough medicine. To put that in perspective: it is likely that one teen per high school classroom abuses DXM.  And that’s a pretty scary statistic.

Why are teens abusing cough medicine?

Cough medicine can be obtained legally, easily and inexpensively, making it an attractive choice for teen users. Teens may also be more willing to abuse DXM because they mistakenly believe that because it’s legal, it’s less dangerous than other illegal drugs. It’s also much easier to hide from parents – an empty bottle of cough medicine in the trash may be less suspicious than an empty beer can.

While this information is disturbing, there are steps that you can take to prevent cough medicine abuse in your home. You can:


  1. Be aware:

Want to learn more about which medicines contain dextromethorphan (DXM)? The Stop Medicine Abuse campaign released this short but powerful video highlighting one way parents can become more informed and help prevent abuse at home.



The Stop Medicine Abuse icon is included on OTC products that contain DXM. Even without any knowledge of DXM, this icon alerts parents to stay vigilant of their teen’s behavior. Look out for the icon when purchasing cough medicine and encourage other parents to do the same.


  1. Talk to your teen:

Open communication with your teen about drug abuse can make a big difference. In fact, teens who learn about drugs from their parents are 50 percent less likely to use. Have a conversation to learn what your teen knows about DXM abuse, if they have peers who get “high” and what they think about it. Educate them on the risks of DXM and other drugs. To open up a dialogue, use National Medicine Abuse Awareness Month or these conversation starters.


  1. Monitor:

64 percent of parents report that medicines in their home can be accessed by anyone. Protect your teen by monitoring your medicines. Be aware of which medicines contain DXM and regularly keeping track of how much is left. It’s also important to be aware of the online communities your teen may be a part of –  there are websites and videos out there encouraging DXM abuse that even provide instructions for achieving different “highs.”


  1. Share:

Informing parents and community leaders about DXM abuse is the first step in preventing it. As the temperature drops and colds become more frequent, let’s continue to spread awareness about this issue.


You can get more information at www.StopMedicineAbuse.com or join the conversation by following Stop Medicine Abuse on Facebook and Twitter.

Anita Brikman joined the Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA) in 2016 and leads the association’s communications and public affairs functions. As a member of the senior management team, she is responsible for establishing and directing the organization’s communications strategies and goals. Anita is passionate about healthcare issues, with over two decades of experience as a news anchor and health reporter in major television markets – making medicine abuse awareness and prevention efforts important to her. She is also the mother of three teenagers. Join the conversation by following Stop Medicine Abuse on Facebook and Twitter.

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