Remember when you had to beg and cajole your little one to swallow just a capful of cough syrup? Then it may be hard to believe that some teens are downing bottles of the stuff by choice, just to get high. While teen alcohol and “street” drug use have been declining over the last ten years, use of prescription and over-the-counter drug use in teens has skyrocketed, and cough medicine is the easiest and cheapest high available.

Most cough medicines, including syrup, tablet, and gel cap forms, contain the cough suppressant dextromethorphan (DXM). It's safe in small doses, but when taken in large doses (sometimes as much as 25 to 50 times the recommended amount) it can result in a “high” feeling ranging from disorientation and dizziness to loss of motor skills and hallucinatory experiences. The abuse of cough medicine, commonly referred to by kids as “robo-ing,” “robo-tripping,” or “skittling,” presents a serious health risk when consumed in such high quantities, and can lead to the nervous system shutting down. The health risks are even greater if cough medicines are mixed with alcohol or other drugs, which is often the case.

Just how prevalent is this phenomenon? Very, according to Tom Hedrick, a founding director of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. “One in ten teens 12-17 admits to getting high on cough medicine,” he says, “and one in three kids reports getting offered cough medicine to get high.” The availability of cough medicines in bathroom cabinets, neighborhood drug stores, and online outlets makes obtaining dextromethorphan relatively easy, but that's not the only reason robo-tripping is on the rise. “The key thing that appears to be happening,” says Hedrick, “is that kids believe they can get high without the health risk, because what they are taking is 'medicine.'”

Kids may underestimate the dangers of cough medicine abuse, but parents needs to recognize the threat for what it is: a troubling trend that involves not only troubled teens, but a culture of normalized self-medication. So how can parents help? Here are some suggestions:

  • Educate yourself about today's recreational drugs. “There's a blind spot because what kids are getting high on now didn't exist when their parents were kids,” says Hedrick. Remember that your drug knowledge may be outdated by as much as thirty years!
  • Communicate the risks. Make it clear to your child that both prescription and over-the-counter medicines can be just as dangerous as street drugs, and that they should always be taken according to their recommended indication and dosage.
  • Safeguard your meds and ask your friends to do the same. Be aware of the medicines you have in the house and how much of each, and avoid keeping old prescriptions around that you no longer need.
  • Monitor your child's Internet use and be aware of incoming packages or suspicious credit cards charges. Most kids get their information from the web and many even use online services to order dextromethorphane.

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