Baystate Recovery Center Blog

Cough and Cold Medicine Abuse

Cough and Cold Medicine Abuse

Over-the-counter cough and cold medicine contain psychoactive ingredients that cause extreme drowsiness, euphoria, and even hallucinations when taken in higher than recommended doses. For example, dextromethorphan (DXM) is an antitussive found in Vicks Dayquil Cough, Robitussin, and Delsym 12-Hour Cough Relief that suppresses brain signals triggering the cough reflex. Abusing or overdosing on cough medicines with dextromethorphan increases the risk of seizures, respiratory distress, and potentially, coma.

According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, DXM abusers have street names for this chemical, such as Poor Man’s PCP, Skittles, and Robo. Consuming large quantities of Robitussin to get high is called “Robo-tripping”. In addition, DXM powder is available on the Internet since it is not regulated in the United States.

Pseudoephedrine in Cold Medications

In 2006, the FDA put certain restrictions on OTC cold medicines that contain a stimulant called pseudoephedrine. By narrowing blood vessels in the sinus passages, pseudoephedrine relieves the congestion and drainage associated with colds and allergies. Popular cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine include Sudafed, Dimetapp Decongestant, and Contac 12-Hour.

Today, these cold medicines can only be found behind store counters in locked cabinets to prevent methamphetamine addicts from shoplifting pseudoephedrine pills and using them to make methamphetamine.

Pharmacies that sell pseudoephedrine products must keep records of who purchases them (name and address) for at least two years and require proof of identity of people who buy them.

Adverse effects of abusing pseudoephedrine include:

  • Agitation/severe nervousness
  • Insomnia
  • Paranoia/psychosis
  • Tachycardia/heart palpitations
  • Heart arrhythmia
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures
  • Stroke

Many pseudoephedrine abusers are teens who will go on to develop a methamphetamine addiction. In fact, drug use and abuse are highest among young adults (nearly 40 percent) between 18 and 25 years old. Additionally, kids who experiment with OTC or illegal drugs before age 13 are 70 percent more likely to become addicted to illegal drugs than teens who use drugs after age 17.

Promethazine in Cold Medications

A type of antihistamine found in OTC allergy and cold medications, promethazine relieves the congestion, runny nose, itching, and sneezing associated with seasonal allergies. It is also used to treat skin rashes or hives, motion sickness, and postoperative nausea and vomiting.

Promethazine also causes drowsiness, mild euphoria, and light-headedness. Abusing promethazine gives people the same feeling of sedation provided by prescription anti-anxiety medications. Combining promethazine with alcohol is especially dangerous, resulting in one or more of the following side effects:

  • Confusion/agitation/disorientation
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Inability to stay awake
  • Heart palpitations/racing heart
  • Convulsions/uncontrollable facial movements (lip smacking, blinking rapidly, making chewing movements even though there is nothing in the mouth)
  • Hypotension/shock

Treatment for a Cough and Cold Medicine Substance Abuse Disorder

People suffering from an addiction to street stimulants or opioids may turn to OTC cough, cold, and allergy medications when they cannot access their drug of choice. Consequently, they often overdose on these medications in an attempt to reduce withdrawal symptoms and achieve the kind of high they crave.

Treating cough and cold abusers involves the same protocols used to treat heroin, meth, alcohol, and cocaine abusers. If you or someone you know is abusing cold and cough medicines, please call Baystate Recovery Center at 855-887-6237 for immediate help.

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