The Red Flags of Teen Medicine Abuse

By the Stop Medicine Abuse campaign

It’s likely on your radar that teens’ peers often pressure them to engage in risky behaviors like drinking alcohol or abusing drugs, but did you know that some teens are abusing over-the-counter (OTC) cough medicine? Like the misuse of other substances, the abuse of OTC cough medicine with the active ingredient dextromethorphan (DXM) can have serious side effects that jeopardize the health and safety of your teen.

Teens may also mistakenly believe that because DXM is legal and available over-the-counter, it is less risky to abuse than illicit or prescription drugs. In reality, abusing DXM can result in dangerous side effects such as blurred vision, vomiting, slurred speech, decreased coordination, and more. These effects and others are increased to even more dangerous levels when cough medicine is mixed with alcohol or energy drinks, which many abusers do to try and increase the effects of the “high.”

OTC medicine abuse tends to be easier to hide from parents – an empty bottle of cough medicine in the trash is likely to seem less suspicious than an empty beer bottle, or even an empty package of prescription medicine. Each of these factors can make it harder for parents to identify when their teens might be abusing OTC cough medicine. Being aware of certain “red flags” can help you detect medicine abuse before it escalates. Here are some signs that your teen might be abusing OTC cough medicine or other substances: 

  • Empty cough medicine boxes or bottles in your teen’s room when they aren’t sick.
  • Missing boxes or bottles of cough medicine from your home without explanation.
  • Behavior shifts such as changes in friends, physical appearance, eating patterns, or loss of interest in their favorite hobbies.
  • Hearing your teen or their friends use any of these slang terms.

It’s important to look closer to notice changes in your teen’s behavior. If your teen exhibits any of these red flags, address the issue immediately. For teens to take the dangers of medicine abuse seriously, their parents must take it seriously as well. These conversations are essential as teens who learn about the risks of drug abuse from their parents are 50 percent less likely to use drugs.

Have regular check-in conversations with your teen. Keep it casual – most of the time. Stay involved in your teens daily life by asking questions like, “What was the best part of your day?” and “What’s new with your friends?” Not only will this allow you to monitor their safety, but it will help to establish a relationship with based on trust, which in turn will help you have the more difficult conversations when necessary. Ultimately, these conversations can help you to give your teen the independence he or she needs during the transition into adulthood, while still allowing you to ensure their safety.

If you do you find that your teen has been abusing OTC cough medicine or other substances, it can be a scary moment. Out of love and protection for your teen, you might find yourself inclined to scold or lecture. However, this is not the best way to get through to your teen. Instead, try to communicate with a two-way conversation. Offer support and guidance, instead of lectures. This approach can help your teen be more open and honest with you about their motivations for abusing substances.

The Stop Medicine Abuse campaign encourages you to share what you’ve learned with other parents, teachers, and community members. The more people who are aware of this issue, the more power we have in stopping it and keeping our teens safe.

You can learn more about detecting and preventing teens from abusing OTC cough medicine at Stay updated on new studies and trends in teen behavior, advice for keeping teens away from risky behaviors, general parenting tips, and more by keeping up with Stop Medicine Abuseon Facebook, Twitter, and our blog.

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