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Teen Over-the-Counter Medication Abuse

Over-the-counter (OTC) medication abuse, like DXM abuse, has become very popular amongst teens. Which OTC drugs are abused? What do OTC statistics show?This article reviews these questions, plus how to prevent or get help for teen over the counter drug abuse.


Teens abusing legal substances to get high is nothing new. But glue sniffing and huffing paint fumes have given way to a dangerous and growing trend ? teen abuse of over-the-counter (OTC) medications.

The trend has spread so wide and the potential effects of teen OTC abuse are so deadly that the Partnership For a Drug Free America has launched a public awareness campaign to educate parents and teens about OTC risks.

A number of teens have died from overdosing on dextromethorphan, or DXM, an ingredient found in many OTC cough medications(1). Taken as directed, DXM safely relieves cold symptoms for tens of millions of Americans each year.

But in massive doses ingested by teen abusers this synthetic derivative of morphine causes a high similar to that of the hallucinogen PCP(2).  DXM abuse also has been linked to at least one murder, when a hallucinating Nebraska teen allegedly stabbed a friend to death(3).

Which Medications Are Abused?

Other OTC medicines commonly abused by teens for a high or a temporary energy buzz include:

  • Caffeine stimulants like No-Doz, etc.
  • Antihistamines like Benadryl containing dyphenhydramine
  • Decongestants like Sudafed containing pseudoephedrine
  • Weight loss supplements containing ma haung or ephedra
  • Sleep aids containing doxylamine, like Unisom, etc.
  • Motion sickness treatments with dimenhydrinates, like Dramamine

The Partnership For a Drug Free America 2005 attitude survey found that teens think abusing common OTC medicines is safer than using illegal drugs, and that teens are more likely to abuse OTC medications than many illicit drugs(4).

That may be because OTCs are readily available right in the teens' own home, inexpensively purchased online, or relatively easy to shoplift from stores(5).

How Pervasive is the Problem?

Some facts about the spread of teen OTC abuse: 

  • OTC abuse admissions to drug treatment centers jumped more than 30 percent between 1993 and 2003(6).
  •  A Utah Poison Control Study from 1990 to 1999 showed that 38 percent of recreational drug abuse among teens and children involved OTC drugs. (2) 
  • In 2003, poison control centers in the U.S. received twice as many calls about OTC drug abuse as they did in 2000(7).
  • 10 percent of teens (2.4 million) report abusing cough medicine to get high(4).

The Partnership for a Drug Free America also found:

  • Teens who have abused OTC meds are more likely to have used illicit drugs like Ecstasy and Marijuana.
  • Teens are familiar with brand names of a wide variety of OTC medications and can accurately describe their effects. 
  • Only a third of parents report discussing the risks of using non-prescription cold or cough medicine to get high(4).

 How to Prevent Teen OTC Abuse

Teens who learn a lot about the risks of drugs at home are up to 50 percent less likely to use drugs, so parents should educate themselves and discuss OTC abuse with their teens(4). Other prevention tips include: 

  • Make sure teens understand there is no safe OTC abuse.
  • Know which OTCs teens can abuse, and limit access to them in your home.
  • Keep track of the quantities of OTCs you have in your medicine cabinet, and know how your teen is using them. 
  • Help educate other parents about teen OTC abuse risks. 
  • Find out what OTC drug abuse websites are online and monitor your teen's Internet use. 
  • Communicate your standards about OTC drug use to your teens. 
  • Have something constructive for your teen to do after school between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. This is a vulnerable time for teens to get into trouble with OTC meds and drugs. 
  • Look for empty bottles or blister packs of cough and cold meds in backpacks, cars, dresser drawers, and trash cans. 
  • Be aware if your teen is taking OTC medication when he or she appears physically well(5).

Getting Help for Teen OTC Abuse

An OTC abuse problem is a drug abuse problem and should be handled as such. Treatment for OTC abuse should always be under the care of a physician or a licensed substance abuse treatment program.

No one should ever try to treat OTC abuse by going "cold turkey" or otherwise without professional help!

If you suspect your teen may be abusing OTC meds, the first step is to talk with your child. Express your concerns in a non-accusatory way.

Seek treatment options from your family doctor, your teen's school counselor, or the mental health division of your local public health department. They should be familiar with treatment programs and be able to refer your to one that fits your needs.


  1. Indianapolis Star [online] 
  2. Nursing Spectrum [online] 
  3. Lincoln Journal Star [online] 
  4. Partnership For a Drug-Free America [online] 
  5. Project GHB [online] 
  6. The Federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services 
  7. Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America [online]

Related Article: Teen Drug Use / Abuse >>

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