Muir Wood therapist, David Laing

Understanding Dextromethorphan Abuse in Teens

Cough Syrup Abuse

Even teens who normally wouldn’t dream of touching illegal drugs will often experiment with cough syrup, falsely believing that because the product doesn’t even require a prescription, it can’t possibly be harmful.

Dextromethorphan (DXM) is a common over-the-counter medication that can relieve a persistent cough. However, unlike most over-the-counter meds, dextromethorphan is more than just a cough suppressant to some consumers; it’s also a substance that is often abused for recreational purposes, especially by teenagers.

It’s important for parents to be aware of this issue. Too many think nothing of the leftover cough syrups they keep in the medicine cabinet and wouldn’t notice if these bottles were to disappear. In the same way, they may not think twice if they occasionally saw an empty box or bottle that once contained a cough medicine in the bathroom trash.

The truth is, however, that DXM can be very dangerous, causing a number of ill effects in teens who are hoping for a good time.

Parents are advised to keep an eye out for the signs of dextromethorphan abuse just as they would the abuse of any other illicit substance or alcohol. If your son is struggling with drug abuse of any kind, we’re here to help. Contact us at Muir Wood today.

Using Dextromethorphan Recreationally

When used in the proper dosage, dextromethorphan products are relatively safe and effective at relieving cough, cold and flu symptoms. When people take more than the recommended dosage of the medication, however, the problems begin.

Intentional misuse of this medication can lead to issues that include:

  • Heightened perceptual awareness
  • Changes in the ability to perceive time
  • Hallucinations
  • Liver damage
  • Strokes
  • Heart attack
  • Death

Clearly, with all of these side effects as very real and very dangerous possibilities, dextromethorphan is not the “recreational” drug so many teens believe it to be; it can be deadly, and it can be deadly the very first time it is used. As such, make sure your children know about the dangers associated with this drug and that they understand the importance of staying away from it. As always, remain vigilant for the signs of DXM abuse or abuse of any illicit substance in your teen.

Dextromethorphan and Other Drugs

While some teens just use DXM on its own, it’s becoming more and more common for teenagers to mix dextromethorphan with other drugs, such as alcohol, Ecstasy, marijuana and other cough syrups. When different ingredients from different medications and/or illegal drugs are combined with DXM, the likelihood for and the intensity of symptoms related to dextromethorphan use increase greatly. In short, taking the drug on its own is bad, but combining the drug with other medications is even worse.

The Effects of Dextromethorphan

Most people who abuse dextromethorphan describe the “high” experienced as “fun” – at least at first. As the high progresses, however, many users report feeling sick and experiencing some of the negative effects of the medication. The negative effects of dextromethorphan are often more intense than and longer lasting than any pleasurable effects associated with the drug. Some of the negative issues associated with dextromethorphan abuse include:

  • Intense and uncomfortable flushing or feeling overheated
  • Nausea
  • Dizzy spells
  • A loss of balance and coordination
  • Panic attacks
  • Seizures
  • A feeling of being outside of one’s body
  • Visual hallucinations
  • Auditory hallucinations
  • Impaired reasoning or judgment
  • Sweating
  • Fatigue
  • Energy bursts
  • Slurred speech
  • High blood pressure
  • Twitching eyes
  • Vomiting
  • Skin irritation or rashes
  • Changes in heartbeat
  • Paranoia
  • Mental confusion
  • Changes in vision
  • Feeling like one is floating
  • Nervousness
  • Stomach pain

Dextromethorphan Use Can Lead to Bad Decisions

teen drinking cough syrupFortunately, not all teens who experiment with dextromethorphan will die or experience severe, adverse health effects as a direct result of their drug use. Unfortunately, however, as noted above, one of the effects of dextromethorphan abuse is impaired judgment and reasoning, both of which can lead to some pretty serious problems of their own.

Teens who engage in dextromethorphan abuse are more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior and are thus more likely to contract sexually transmitted diseases or infections and/or to become pregnant. Teens who abuse dextromethorphan are also more likely to become the victims of sexual assault, physical assault or both. There is also an increased risk for car accidents, injuries, suicide and violent behavior.

Teens are not themselves when they use this dangerous drug and, as a result, they can make poor decisions that they ordinarily wouldn’t or find themselves in situations that can have a negative impact on the rest of their lives.

Long-Term Dextromethorphan Use

Just as experimental use can result in unwanted hazards and acute medical issues, long-term abuse of dextromethorphan only increases the number of problems facing teen users of the drug.

Over time, users of DXM may find that they are chronically experiencing the very symptoms that DXM is designed to cure, such as coughing, fatigue and insomnia.

Additionally, continued risk-taking behavior statistically leads to a higher chance that one of the above issues – assault, accident, medical emergency, etc. – will strike your child. It can’t be overstated: If you have identified DXM abuse or abuse of any combination of substances in your teen, don’t wait to act.

What Can I Do?

Parents who feel that they have repeatedly made their anti-drug stance clear and been a good role model for their kids often are not sure of what steps to take when they identify signs of substance of any kind. In situations where drug or alcohol use is in its early stages, parents are advised to:

  • Have a serious talk with their child about their concerns.
  • Outline the ground rules going forward and make clear the consequences for breaking those rules.
  • Let them know that they should contact you and ask to be picked up immediately if they get into a situation where their friends are drinking or getting high.
  • Ask if they have any questions.

Should drug use escalate or continue, it’s time to take more serious action. This almost always means enrolling your son in an intensive outpatient or inpatient program designed just for teen boys who are dealing with substance abuse issues.

Dextromethorphan Tolerance

Building up a tolerance to a particular substance – or requiring higher and higher doses of the drug in order to get or maintain a high – is a sign that physical dependence is an issue or that chronic abuse of the drug is a problem.

Once a tolerance has formed, the door is opened to a number of problems, including:

  • Cravings for the drug
  • The impulse to do just about anything to get more of the substance
  • The desire to augment the effects of the drug by combining its use with other mind-altering substances

Additionally, this tolerance, if indicative of a physical dependence, can precipitate the experience of withdrawal symptoms when the user is without the drug for any reason. These symptoms can be disruptive enough to drive the user to seek more of it or another illicit substance at any cost in order to make the ill effects stop. This usually means that medically supervised, inpatient care is needed in order to help the patient safely and effectively “kick the habit” and avoid relapse.

The Benefit of Teen-Specific Care

Teens may face the divorce of their parents, the drug use of their siblings and close friends, the stress of standardized testing and college applications, an intense social scene among peers, and harsh self-criticism as well as constantly fluctuating hormones and uncertainty about their place in the world. Most of these are not issues facing the adult drug abuser, and few adults turn to DXM abuse if they are dealing with any of these issues. Thus, for the teen fighting to regain stability and avoid substance abuse, a program that provides directed and specific help for him is the best option.

Is Your Teen Abusing Dextromethorphan?

The signs of abuse of dextromethorphan aren’t always as easy to spot as the signs of abuse of other drugs. It doesn’t come with a strong odor, like alcohol or marijuana. There is almost no paraphernalia associated with its use, and kids rarely carry around a “stash” that you can find. Additionally, because parents may be hyper vigilant when it comes to the signs of drinking or use of other drugs, the signs of DXM abuse often go unnoticed. Some things to look for include any combination of the following:

  • Complaining of a cold and cough even when no symptoms are present
  • Keeping DXM-containing cough and cold medicine on hand
  • Noticing missing medications from your own medicine cabinet
  • Using cough and cold medications when not ill
  • Poor academic performance
  • Changes in mood
  • Associating with a new group of friends
  • Changes in personal hygiene and/or appearance
  • Social withdrawal
  • Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed

A number of the signs above can be indicative of substance abuse of all kinds. Remember that many kids who use and abuse DXM are often using other substances of opportunity as well: alcohol, prescription drugs found in the medicine cabinet, marijuana, or “bath salts” and other drugs that are either available online, through older friends or found at home. Paying attention to significant changes as well as a handful of little changes that at first may not seem connected can help you to more quickly put your finger on the issue and take action.

DXM: Age Limits Provide False Sense of Security

Fortunately, as knowledge about DXM abuse has increased, more and more states are starting to set age limits for the purchase of DXM-containing products and to check IDs before selling products to suspected minors.

Don’t just assume, however, that because your state has an age limit in place for the purchase of DXM products that your teen is safe.

Like alcohol and other drugs in use by adults, many teens simply find what they need at home or at the houses of friends and family members. Others are given their substance of choice by friends, and still others purchase DXM from dealers, just as they would any common street drug.

No One Is Immune

No matter how well behaved the child, how high his grades, or how seemingly innocent his friendships and after-school activities, the fact is that no one is immune to the peer pressure, stress and/or self-esteem issues that often trigger experimentation with drugs and alcohol during the teen years. Parents are encouraged to stay in close contact with their sons, checking in constantly, and following up on any issue that could indicate drug or alcohol abuse.

Does Your Son Need Help?

father and son talkingIf you do find out that your teen is abusing dextromethorphan, the absolute best thing you can do is seek professional help for him. Even teens who are not truly addicted to the drug can benefit from learning about why they turned to substance abuse in the first place and what they can do to stop it from happening again in the future. Outpatient treatment services may be a good fit in addition to close monitoring to ensure that the abuse of all substances stops completely.

Teens who are physically dependent upon the drug will need more intensive help to stop its use. Inpatient rehabilitation is often warranted to ensure protection against relapse during the treatment period and to better prepare the child to avoid substance abuse when they return home.

Fortunately, the right rehabilitation facility can help the teen to understand the issues behind his addiction and learn how to make healthier choices in the future. Here at Muir Wood, we serve boys ages 12 to 17 only, creating a safe and protected environment without distraction that allows them to focus specifically on their goals for recovery. We emphasize family involvement at every level of treatment in order to better foster the child’s ability to remain relapse-free at home. Call now for more information or download our application packet today.