Supermarket Sweep: Teens Using More OTC Drugs to Get High

A lot of teens are no longer buying drugs from dealers in shady alleys.

“It’s not like I’m doing anything illegal,” Kristen rationalized. “It’s just cough syrup.” Kristen had recently discovered she could get an “easy” high from this medicine. She was right - it’s not illegal. It’s also easy to obtain. It’s cheaper than street drugs, and she doesn’t need a dealer to get it. Kristen started drinking bottles of cough syrup several times a week. She asked others to buy it for her. Eventually, she started stealing a bottle or two each time she went to the store.

Kristen’s classmate, Kyle, chose a different route to get high. After his parents went on a cruise, they had a large stash of motion sickness pills in the cabinet. Kyle knew they wouldn’t miss them, so he downed a large handful one day. The result was a high similar to street drugs. In an effort to escape the pressures at school and home, Kyle began taking Dramamine regularly. “Who needs heroin or cocaine?” Kyle thought. “I won’t get arrested for this, and it’s over the counter stuff, so it’s obviously not dangerous.”

Guess What’s on the Shopping List?

According to recent studies, Kristen and Kyle’s scenarios are becoming more and more common. Teens are using fewer illicit drugs, but they are turning to over-the-counter (OTC) drug abuse instead. Illicit drug use dropped about 50 percent between 2010 and 2013, but the number of teens using medicine for non-medical purposes nearly doubled in 2013. One in every 10 teens has reported abusing cough medicine to get high. The Victorian Ambulance service reported that over-the-counter painkillers result in more ambulance calls than crystal meth or ice.

Parents must remain vigilant to these teen temptations. It’s no longer enough to keep an eye out for illegal drug paraphernalia. Your teen may be abusing perfectly legal drugs. A teen who wouldn’t consider smoking pot might get hooked on diet pills. And, like Kyle, they may assume these drugs won’t hurt them because they are over-the-counter medications. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. It is essential to educate teens on the dangers of misusing medications.

Following are a few of the most commonly abused over-the-counter substances. Consumed in large (dangerous) amounts, these can provide similar “rushes” or “highs” to street drugs. They also cause severe side effects.

  • Diet pills: Abuse of these medications can result in an eating disorder and other health complications. They can also be highly addictive. Diet pills can cause rapid and irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, heart failure, stroke and death. They can also cause kidney problems, dehydration, insomnia, anxiety, paranoia and digestive issues.
  • Pain relievers: Pills such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen are often misused. Large doses of these medications can cause liver failure, stomach bleeding, kidney failure and cardiac risks.
  • Caffeine medicines/energy drinks: Consuming large amounts of these substances can cause accidental death, as well as panic attacks, gastric reflux and serious dehydration.
  • Laxatives and herbal diuretics: Often abused in an effort to lose weight, these can cause life-threatening side effects. Users can become seriously dehydrated and lose important salts and minerals needed to regulate the body.
  • Motion sickness pills: Medicines such as Dramamine and Benadryl can be deadly if misused. High doses (which are required to achieve the desired high) can cause irregular heartbeats, coma, heart attack and death. Continued abuse leads to depression, liver and kidney damage, stomach pain and memory loss.
  • Cough medicine: Medicines that contain the cough suppressant dextromethorphan (DXM) are often consumed in high doses to achieve a “drunk high.” This abuse also results in rapid heartbeat, stomach pain, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, hallucinations and loss of physical coordination.

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