Teen cough medicine abuse on the rise in county

Clare Desrosiers, Special to The County
17 years ago

The latest, and among the most insidious drug abuse problems, has arisen among teens and is creeping across America, affecting communities like ours everywhere. There are codenames for it: Skittles, Robo, Triple Cs, Dex, Tussin, and “Vitamin D” to mention a few. It is the practice of getting high by taking excessive doses of over-the-counter (OTC) cough medications.     These are the same remedies that we commonly stock in our medicine cabinets, and are readily available in drugstores and supermarkets everywhere. The “high” is caused by dextromethorphan, known familiarly as DXM, and is an active ingredient in more than 100 nonprescription cough syrups, tablets, and gel caps like Dimetapp DM, Robitussin, Sudafed and Vicks 44. A normal dose of cough medicine is 15–30 milligrams. Remarkably, kids are sometimes ingesting 25 to 50 times the recommended doses!
DXM, when used as directed, has a long history of being safe and effective. However, when taken in large doses, it can produce an hallucinogenic high, along with dangerous side effects, caused by DXM itself or other active ingredients in the medicine. Among them are stomach pain and heart problems, as well as delusions, depression, high blood pressure, hot/cold flashes, loss of consciousness, nausea and vomiting, numbness, rashes, and seizures.
Certainly as a community, we want to ensure that OTC cough and cold medicines containing DXM remain accessible to those who need them. However, the potential for abuse among youth demands our immediate attention.
Authorities tell us that DXM overdoses typically occur in clusters, as word about the “high” spreads in a community’s middle and high schools. According to a recent study, it’s estimated that one out of 10 people aged 12 to 17 — that’s 2.4 million kids from all backgrounds and geographic areas — say that they have taken cough remedies to get high. In fact, local information provided by the Northern New England Poison Center, indicates that cold and cough medicines were among the top five substances involved in substance abuse related poisonings in Aroostook County between 2001 and 2006.
It is vital that adults, particularly parents, be aware of the possible signs of abuse. A red flag should be raised if you see your child making frequent purchases of OTC cough preparations from the same or different stores, or from the Internet (for example, note the arrival of unexpected packages); hides cough medicine bottles in his/her bedroom; is exhibiting odd behavior; has declining grades; a loss of interest in friends and activities; or is experiencing hallucinations and/or any of the side effects mentioned above. Be vigilant about your medicine cabinets. Know what’s in there, keep track of your medicines, and discard OTC and prescription medications that you don’t need. If you suspect a problem, immediately contact a local substance abuse prevention/intervention professional, such as a pediatrician, family doctor or mental health counselor. Aroostook Substance Abuse Prevention (ASAP) or Partnership for a Healthy Community can also direct you toward help.
The time to educate and act is now. Everything depends on it, for while our children make up only 25 percent of our national population, they represent 100 percent of our future. If you are interested in obtaining more information for yourself or a group with which you are involved, please contact ASAP or Partnership for a Healthy Community.
Clare Desrosiers is Project Coordinator for Aroostook Substance Abuse Prevention (521-2408). You can also contact Carol Bell at Partnership for a Healthy Community (phone: 768-3056; email: cbell@acap-me.org).