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Cough Medicine Abuse | La Hacienda

Cough Medicine Abuse

It may come as a surprise, but seemingly innocuous cough medicine can be dangerous. Cough syrup, cold medicines, and other similar substances have ingredients that can become addicting, leading to drug abuse. 

These over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription medicines are safe when used responsibly and according to instructions., but due to their accessibility and low cost, people abuse both pill forms and cough syrups, especially to extract DXM.

How do you know if you or someone you love is abusing cough medicine? And what can you do to help them? At La Hacienda, we’ve shared what you need to know about cough medicine abuse and how to get help. Keep reading to learn more.

On The Rise: Cough Syrup Abuse

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The Consumer healthcare Products Association supports legislation that would prohibit the sale of over-the-counter (OTC) cough medicines containing dextromethorphan (DXM) to teens under the age of 18.

One of the most common ingredients found in cough and cold medicines is dextromethorphan (DXM). DXM is chiefly a cough medicine that suppresses the cough reflex by affecting the brain itself. When using OTC or prescription medicines responsibly the prescribed amounts that contain DMX are safe.

Illegal users – both mature and young adults- have discovered how much DXM can mimic the high of other drugs, like anesthetic ketamine and PCP. Once a person discovers cough and cold medicine from their medicine cabinet can create this high, many times addiction and a substance use disorder result.

Over The Counter Medicines

It’s not just DXM that can lead to cough and cold substance abuse. Other cough suppressant medications like codeine and promethazine can be used to achieve similar effects. However, the increase in cough syrup abuse cases is mostly attributed to DXM.

DXM replaced codeine, which can now only be accessed with a prescription.

Some common brands of cold remedies are:

  • Robitussin
  • Nyquil
  • Vicks Formula 44
  • Theraflu

Many cough OTC medicines and DXM products are referred to by those that abuse the drug with slang terms when being used for illicit use.

Slang Terms and words associated with DXM and DXM abuse:

  • Robo-Tripping
  • Purple Drank
  • Sizzurp
  • Skittles
  • Tussin
  • Dexing or Dextro
  • Gel
  • Groove
  • Lean

Loved ones should listen for these words used singularly or together, such as dextro drix gel groove, in conversations to help determine if their loved one is in danger of cough or cold medicine abuse.

The Effects of Cough Syrup Abuse

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DXM is part of a class of drugs called dissociative substances. In high doses, the ingredient can cause out-of-body experiences and hallucinations that last for up to six hours. It also acts as a depressant, affecting the brain and heart function. This results in a relaxed state and euphoria similar to the effects of ketamine and PCP.

These psychoactive effects make DXM a very popular drug. DXM products also come in various forms.

Sometimes it is a powder that is snorted through the nose. These are extra dangerous since dosage is not regulated and the powder may include other drugs or substances that may be more dangerous. In general, a safe dose of DXM is 30 mg every six to eight hours. The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) says the effects of the drug for dosages above the recommended threshold are:

  • 100 mg to 200 mg: Mild stimulation, similar to those of ecstasy. Users feel more energetic, talkative, and social.
  • 200 mg to 400 mg: Hallucinations, euphoria, and other forms of chemical psychosis. Users experience a trance-like state and out-of-body sensations.
  • 400 mg and above: Loss of motor function and blurry vision. High doses can lead to the most severe side effects.

What Makes OTC Medicines Like DXM So Dangerous?

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Easy Access

Since DXM can be bought over the counter and is relatively cheap, it’s more accessible. People buy extra OTC medicines when they cannot afford harder drugs, resorting to cold remedies and cough medicines to get their desired high.

Severe Side Effects of Abusing Cold Medicines

High doses can lead to dangerous side effects, including the following:

  • Panic attacks
  • Dizziness
  • Hot flashes
  • Nausea
  • Lethargy
  • Hyperactivity
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Slurred speech


Hyperthermia is one of the most serious side effects of DXM. It’s an extremely high fever, and it can go unnoticed since the person is in an altered state of awareness. Since DXM is taken during parties or in situations where users exert themselves, the chances of hyperthermia increase. Left unchecked, it can cause brain damage, seizures, and death in extreme cases.

Rapid eye movement, impaired judgment, sweating, lethargy, and drowsiness can be more easily spotted and should be taken very seriously. Chemical psychosis, where a person loses contact with the present, can occur depending on how much medicine was ingested as well as if there was any combining high doses with additional substances such as alcohol.

Heightens the Effects of Other Substances

DXM is usually mixed with other substances like MDMA and alcohol, which make their effects more pronounced. Both also affect the nervous system, with high doses leading to seizures, comas, and death.

Cold Medicines: Signs of Abuse

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What are the common signs that your loved one may be taking larger amounts of cough syrups than what’s safe?

  • Empty Medicine Bottles or Containers: The most obvious sign that someone is taking high doses of cold medicines are empty bottles of cough syrup or missing pills. This is a major red flag, especially if your loved one doesn’t have a cough or cold.
  • Mood Swings: After or during the high, your loved one may be irritable, excitable, or exhibit unusual mood swings.
  • Loss of Interest in Work or School: Adults may lose interest in their work, be late for work, or suffer disciplinary actions due to erratic behaviors. Young adults (teen abuse) can be exhibited by a loss of interest or enthusiasm in school, dropping grades, and missing extra-curricular activities.
  • Faking Illnesses: Your loved one might say they do not feel well hoping to get you to buy cough and cold medicines.
  • New Friends: Unfortunately, having new friends isn’t always a good thing. These new people might be the ones who introduced substance abuse to your loved one, especially if their interactions coincide with the other signs above.

How To Prevent Loved Ones from Abusing Cough and Cold Medicines

As a partner, parent, or friend, you’ll want to intervene immediately to head off cough syrup abuse.

Confronting them head-on, however, can backfire. Instead, treat the problem as a systematic issue that can be solved from different angles.

Talk About Cough Medicine Abuse

Bring up the issue in a non-threatening way. If you think that your loved one is exhibiting warning signs of abusing cold medicines, then address the topic and assure them that they can talk to you. Make them understand that you only want the best for them.

Explain the Risks

Many young adults and older adults aren’t aware of the serious effects of a DXM overdose. To discourage misuse, explain the risks of substance abuse and how this might hurt their body, their relationships, and their future.

Work With Professionals

If you’ve already tried to address your loved one’s behavior and don’t see any changes, then it might be time for you to seek professional help. There are many facilities like La Hacienda that offer addiction treatment for men, women, and young adults. With their excellent programs and dedicated professionals, your loved one will be well on their way to complete recovery.

La Hacienda Helps Treats Drug Abuse and Alcohol Abuse

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Looking for help for your loved one who needs substance abuse treatment? Bring them to La Hacienda. Our medical and clinical teams are familiar with all substance abuse disorders, including cough medicine abuse.

As part of our initial assessment, we discover if we are a match to help your loved one stop using and abusing mind altering chemicals. Through individualized medical and clinical treatment plans, we’re able to address the major factors that cause one to be prone to chemical substance abuse.

La Hacienda provides patients with daily doctor visits and 24-hour nursing care. We have a medically supervised detoxification unit and residential addiction treatment all on one campus.