Archive for October, 2013

What Parents Need To Know: Teens and Over-The-Counter Medication Abuse

Monday, Oct. 21st 2013

The medicine cabinet may be the source where teenagers obtain their ‘high’. Many teens believe that OTC medication is somehow safer than illegal street drugs, mainly because of its legal status and because they do not need a prescription. When taken as directed, these medications are in fact safe and effective. However, when misused, it may cause serious and potentially fatal side effects.

The Statistics Do Not Lie

The number of people over the age of 12 who admit to having abused OTC medication in their lifetime is 3.1 million people and rising. Amongst those younger than 18, almost 5 percent admit to having used over-the-counter medicine in a way other than it was intended. Perhaps more disturbing is the fact that percentage wise, this group is growing. Meanwhile, their perception of the dangers of OTC abuse remains dangerously low. This may suggest that the number of people that will abuse these medications in the future is going to increase.

It is Possible to Create a Deadly Combination

While many of these medicines are safe to use, when used for the correct purpose, abusing them for recreational purposes may be dangerous. Moreover, many teenagers are making their own combination of medications that could have unintended side effects. Mixing with other drugs may intensify the risks of a rapid heartbeat, liver damage and other problems. There are even websites available that recommend what OTC product to combine with alcohol or illicit substances in order to produce a certain effect.

Teens Have Easy Access

Tablets, capsules and liquids are readily available in convenience stores, supermarkets and drugstores. Add in the fact that many teens can find OTC products in their parents’ medicine cabinets, which it guarantees that access is both straightforward and easy. It is even possible to order online, with certain websites recommending specific (far more potent) drug combinations to intensify the outcome.

What is Commonly Abused?

One of the few good things about this type of misuse is that teens often leave traces of it. Whether these are receipts from the drugstore, empty packets, or individual pills they misplaced. Because these traces may sometimes be left around the home, it is a good idea for parents to know what specific names or brand to be aware of. Not only does this provide information, but may allow parents to discuss a possible issue before it gets out of hand.

  • Dextromethorphan – More than 100 OTC cough and cold medicines use this as the main active ingredient. Examples include NyQuil and Robitussin. These cough medications may create a euphoric sensation that is labeled as a ‘high’. These may last upwards of six hours and include out of body hallucinations and distortions of color and sound. Dangerous side effects with the abuse of dextromethorphan include a fast heart rate, shallow breathing, drowsiness, blurred vision, seizures, loss of muscle movement, vomiting, and impaired judgment. When paired with other drugs or alcohol, the combination could be fatal. Use may lead to withdrawal symptoms that include difficulty processing thoughts and depression. Finally, long-term users have reported permanent brain damage, heart damage, high blood pressure, bone marrow damage and damage to nerve cells.
  • Pain relievers – Teens and adults alike take pain relievers such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen in higher doses because they want the pain-relieving effects to work faster. However, large doses of acetaminophen have been linked to liver failure while large doses of ibuprofen have been linked to increased risks of cardiac problems, kidney failure and stomach bleeding.
  • Diet pills – When taken in a large dose, it is possible to experience a mild buzz when taking these diet pills. However, they can be highly addictive. While the FDA has taken steps to ban several of the most dangerous stimulants that may be included in these diet pills (ephedra, ephedrine and phenylpropanolamine), they may include other dangerous ingredients. For example, when bitter orange, a common ingredient, enters into the body, it acts very much like ephedrine. It may lead to heart failure, stroke, high blood pressure, a rapid and irregular heartbeat, nervousness, tremors, and in high enough doses – death. Many other ingredients lead to problems with dehydration, kidney problems, blurred vision, extreme paranoia, irritability, anxiety, insomnia, hair loss and digestive problems.
  • Motion sickness pills – When abused and taken in large doses, diphenhydramine (Benadryl) and dimenhydrinate (Dramamine) may lead to similar hallucinations and feelings of euphoria as some street drugs. Both tolerance and body weight determine the dose needed to generate these symptoms. Particularly high doses of Dramamine have led to dangerous irregular heartbeats, heart attacks, coma and even death. Long-term abuse may lead to abdominal pain, urine retention, itchy skin, eye pain, memory loss, liver damage, kidney damage and depression.
  • Pseudoephedrine - This stimulant and nasal decongestant can be found in a number of different cold medications. It is highly sought after because it can be used to manufacture methamphetamine. When abused as a stimulant, it leads to a hyperactive, excitable sensation. Because of federal law mandating photo identification prior to purchase, a limitation in purchase quantity and it be kept behind the pharmacy counter, abuse is less likely with pseudoephedrine. Some of the dangerous side effects include heart attacks, irregular heartbeats and heart palpitations. In combination with other substances, it may lead to episodes of paranoid psychosis.


Knowing a little more about the possible OTC substances of choice gives parents a chance to be aware of possible warning signs. There is a misconception amongst some parents that OTC drug abuse is not as serious as problems with marijuana or alcohol. However, the truth is that abuse here can lead to potentially serious consequences, some of which may be fatal.

While we are certainly not advocating that parents refuse to let their teenagers buy over-the-counter medication, we do recommend that parents take an active role in providing guidance. Because the idea of what constitutes drug abuse is evolving and issues with prescription medication are more abundant than ever before, it is important that parents stay up-to-date with the latest trends as well.

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