Is your medicine cabinet a source
for a teen’s legal “high?”
Because a doctor’s prescription is not needed, many
mistakenly believe that over-the-counter (OTC) medicines are safer than
prescription medicines and illegal street drugs. They are in fact safe and
effective when taken as directed, but even OTC medicines—including herbals—can
cause serious and potentially fatal side effects when abused.
Abuse of OTC medicines is most
common among teens between the ages of 13 and 16. They know they might find a
cheap high right in their family’s medicine cabinet, often without being
caught. But young adults have also abused OTC medicines, particularly in
combination with other medicines, alcohol, and illegal drugs, which increases
the risks. The list that follows includes the top 10 medicines currently abused
by teens and adults.
This is the active ingredient in more than 100 OTC cough and cold
medicines such as Robitussin and NyQuil. One teen in every 10 has reported
abuse of cough medicine to get high. Large doses can cause euphoria,
distortions of color and sound, and “out of body” hallucinations that last
up to 6 hours, impaired judgment, vomiting, loss of muscle movement,
seizures, blurred vision, drowsiness, shallow breathing, and a fast heart
rate. When combined with alcohol or other drugs, a large dose can lead to
- Pain relievers:
Adults and teens have taken pain relievers like acetaminophen and
ibuprofen in doses higher then recommended because they want the medicine
to work faster. Liver failure can happen with large doses of
acetaminophen, and stomach bleeding, kidney failure, and cardiac risks are
heightened when taking large doses of ibuprofen.
- Caffeine medicines and energy drinks: OTC caffeine pills like NoDoz or energy drinks have all
been abused for the buzz or “jolt of energy” they seem to impart. Large
doses of caffeine can cause serious dehydration, gastric reflux, panic
attacks, and heart irregularities that have occasionally been linked to
accidental deaths, particularly in those with an underlying heart
condition. Taking too much of a pain reliever can also cause serious side
effects as noted above.
- Diet pills:
In large doses, diet pills can create a mild buzz, but misuse of diet
pills can also signal a serious eating disorder. These OTC medicines can
be highly addictive. They can cause nervousness and tremor, rapid
and irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, stroke, heart failure, and
- Laxatives and herbal diuretics: Like diet pills, some teens and young adults also
abuse OTC laxatives and herbal diuretics (water pills). Laxatives and herbal diuretics can
cause serious dehydration and life-threatening loss of important minerals
and salts that regulate the amount of water in the body, acidity of the
blood, and muscle function.
- Motion sickness pills: Motion sickness pills that contain dimenhydrinate
(Dramamine) or diphenhydramine (Benadryl) taken in large doses can cause
one to feel high and have hallucinations similar to street drugs.
Extremely high doses of Dramamine have caused dangerous irregular
heartbeats, coma, heart attacks, and death. Long-term abuse can cause
depression, liver and kidney damage, memory loss, eye pain, itchy skin,
urine retention, and abdominal pain.
- Sexual performance medicines: OTC sexual performance medicines, often purchased via
the Internet, are sometimes abused by teens and adults who are drinking to
counteract the negative effects of alcohol on sexual performance. These
medicines can cause heart problems, especially when combined with alcohol
or when taken in large doses.
This nasal decongestant and stimulant is found in many cold medicines. Its
similarity to amphetamines has made it sought out to make the illegal drug
methamphetamine. The medicine has also been taken as a stimulant to cause
an excitable, hyperactive feeling. Dangerous side effects include heart
palpitations, irregular heartbeats, and heart attacks. When combined with
other drugs, such as narcotics, pseudoephedrine may trigger episodes of
- Herbal ecstasy:
This is a combination of inexpensive herbs that are legally sold in pill
form and swallowed, snorted, or smoked to produce euphoria, increased
awareness, and enhanced sexual sensations.It is easy to
overdose on these products because the dose needed for desirable effects
varies widely. The adverse effects can be severe, including muscle spasms,
increased blood pressure, seizures, heart attacks, strokes, and death.
- Other herbals:
One example is salvia, which is ingested or smoked to experience a
short-lived distortion of reality and profound hallucinations. Users can
experience severe anxiety, loss of body control, extreme psychosis, and
violent behavior. They are also at risk for accidents and injuries that
may result from an altered mental state. Some states have regulated the
sale of salvia. Another example is nutmeg, which is eaten as a paste to
experience giddiness, euphoria, and hallucinations. Nausea and
vomiting set in within an hour and hallucinations begin within 3 hours and
can last for 24 hours or more. Effects such as blurred vision, dizziness,
numbness, palpitations, low blood pressure, and rapid heartbeat may occur.
One of the greatest difficulties
with preventing OTC drug use is that few teens and adults realize the danger.
Unlike the risks associated with illegal street drugs like cocaine and heroin,
the risks associated with OTC drug abuse are given little thought and