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SAMHSA News - January/February 2008, Volume 16, Number 1

Millions of Youth Misuse Cough and Cold Medicines

By Leslie Quander Wooldridge

Parents may worry about their children’s access to illicit drugs, but young people also misuse easily acquired substances. About 3.1 million Americans age 12 to 25 (5.3 percent) have used over-the-counter (OTC) cough and cold medicines to get high at least once in their lifetimes, according to a new report from SAMHSA’s Office of Applied Studies.

The report, Misuse of Over-the-Counter Cough and Cold Medications among Persons Aged 12 to 25, also reveals that nearly 1 million people in that age group had misused these OTC drugs in the past year. Specifically, 30.5 percent misused a NyQuil® product, 18.1 percent misused a Coricidin® product, and 17.8 percent misused a Robitussin® product in the past year.

For lifetime use, newly analyzed data from SAMHSA's National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) show the number of young people who misused OTC drugs is comparable to those who reported having tried LSD (3.1 million) and is significantly greater than the number who reported having tried methamphetamine (2.4 million).

In addition, among people age 12 to 25 who had ever misused OTC cough and cold medicines, 81.9 percent also were lifetime users of marijuana.

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Educating Young People

SAMHSA recently introduced a pilot program to educate consumers of all ages about proper disposal of prescription drugs, in light of increased use of these drugs among young adults. (See SAMHSA News online, November/December 2007.)

Because young people are misusing OTC and prescription medications, SAMHSA Administrator Terry L. Cline, Ph.D., noted that a national response is necessary. “Members of the medical community and parents can help teach young people that OTC drugs are not ‘safer’ to misuse simply because they are legal and have a legitimate purpose,” he said. “Misuse of OTC drugs can have tragic consequences.”

More than 140 cough and cold medications available without a prescription contain dextromethorphan (DXM), a cough suppressant that generally is safe when taken at recommended doses for medicinal purposes.

When taken in large amounts, however, DXM can produce hallucinations or dissociative, “out-of-body” experiences similar to those caused by the hallucinogens phencyclidine (PCP) and ketamine. SAMHSA data show that the misuse of medicines containing DXM contributes to thousands of patient visits to hospital emergency departments. (See SAMHSA News online, November/December 2006.)

Overdosing on many cough and cold medications can result in serious, life-threatening reactions, including blurred vision, loss of physical coordination, intense abdominal pain, vomiting, uncontrolled violent muscle spasms, irregular heartbeat, delirium, and death.

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To Order

SAMHSA’s annual NSDUH survey is the largest of its kind and involves interviewing nearly 67,000 people from around the Nation, including almost 45,000 people age 12 to 25.

The full report, Misuse of Over-the-Counter Cough and Cold Medications among Persons Aged 12 to 25, is available for free download on SAMHSA’s Web site at

For more information on OTC drug abuse among young people, visit SAMHSA’s Family Guide Web site at

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