Teens And Medicine Abuse, A Bad Rap?

OTC med abuse

infographic from OTCsafety

I’ve been lucky enough to interact with teens on a regular basis for my entire career. As a previous middle and junior high school teacher, people often express pity when they hear I taught middle-school, as if teens are “too” tough, histrionic, and irresponsible to have wanted the job. I really did want the job. I love the drama and rate of change during adolescence. In my experience I see teens take on huge responsibility, make good choices, care deeply about their family and friends, and work diligently to improve their world. Their interest and work on evolving into an ideal self is captivating. Most teens are highly motivated. Many are over-extended because they are so committed. Lazy teens just aren’t the norm…

Sometimes teens get a bad rap. Sometimes they make choices without thinking of the consequences too. That’s normal when you’re still developing. Those mistakes pave the road of opportunity for us to give teens information that keeps them safe.

October is a lot of things (more on that this month) but know it’s National Medicine Abuse Awareness Month and there’s a big push to both educate parents on signs of over-the-counter (OTC) medicine abuse and encourage parents to talk with teens about the risks of using medications as recreational drugs.

Thing is, approximately 1 in 25 teens reports abusing excessive amounts of Dextromethorphan (DXM) to get high. DXM is a safe ingredient found in more than 100 OTC medicines. It’s typically found in cough suppressants or medicines for cough and colds. Because it’s a stimulant, when DXM is consumed in excess it can cause a rapid heart beat, vomiting, stomach pain, hallucinations, confusion, and loss of motor control. It also can induce a high — hence why teens experiment with it.

1 in 3 teens know someone who has abused OTC cough medicine to get high. Consider asking at home what your kids know.

Some Possible Tip-offs For OTC Medication Abuse

  • Empty cough medicine bottles in your child’s room or backpack, family trash cans, or car. Obviously its worth bringing this up if you have concerns. Rather than sneaking around your child and snooping, ask them directly about what you’ve noticed if you find empty bottles.
  • A sudden change in friends, sleeping patterns, or physical appearance. Sometime teens “re-do” their social life but if it happens rapidly or in an unexpected way, it’s worth checking in. Sometimes it can mean a teen is experimenting with new substances.
  • Loss of interest in favorite hobbies or activities. Now singularly, a loss of interest can mean all sorts of things (concerns for anxiety, depressed feelings, stress or just a simple shift of thinking), but if your teen starts to move away from things they previously loved, inquire what has changed and be direct about why you have a concern. Don’t beat around the bush; tell your teen what you’re thinking and what you may be worried about.

What Parents Need To Know

  • What you say to your teen (despite their body language!) really matters and earnestly changes behavior. Although parents often push back against this data, studies have found that parents who check in with their children about drug use and abuse have children who are far less likely to use drugs.
  • Every OTC medicine has the potential to be abused and used recreationally. DXM (often in cough and cold medications) carries specific risks. Those who abuse it can refer to it as robotripping, tussin, skittling, or dexing. Ask teens if they have heard of this.
  • Learn to identify the warning signs (as above) and don’t hesitate to ask/act on concerns you have. Why wait?
  • Your pediatrician, nurse practitioner, or family doctor is a resource if you’re having a difficult time asking your teen or talking with them about your concerns. Don’t hesitate to make an appointment if you need help getting to the bottom of your concern and need soundbites or conversation starters.

OTC_Official_Ambassador_KBThis post was written in partnership with OTC Safety.org. In exchange for our ongoing partnership helping families understand how to use OTC (over-the-counter) meds safely they have made a contribution to Digital Health at Seattle Children’s for our work in innovation. I adore the OTC Safety tagline, “Treat yourself and your family with care all year long.” Follow @OTCSafety #OTCSafety for more info on health and wellness.


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