As of the first of the year, no one under the age of 18 will be able to buy cough medicine in Florida. The new law will be in effect to help kids avoid the dangers associated with abuse of a common active ingredient in many over-the-counter cough medications: dextromethorphan (DXM). At therapeutic doses, DXM helps to manage symptoms of the common cold, but in large doses, it can trigger medical emergency in users.
Will the new law help to curb instances of emergency room admissions due to abuse of the drug?
Though abuse of cold medicine is not common in adults who have legal access to other substances like alcohol, among kids, dextromethorphan has long been a resource for getting high. In large quantities, the substance can cause a euphoric effect among users. Kids may snort it, drink it, or inject it in order to experience that high.
Many also experience physical illness, especially stomach cramps and vomiting, after taking the drug, especially if they drink it in large amounts, but for many, the physical effects are far worse. Heart attacks, damage to the liver, and sudden death are not uncommon among those who abuse the drug in large amounts, combine it with use of other substances, and/or use the substance frequently.
Signs of DXM Abuse
Few parents and caregivers expect that young people in their home would abuse cough medicine and inadvertently miss the signs of abuse as a result. Some indications that may point to abuse of DXM in a loved one include:
- Missing bottles of cough medicine from the medicine cabinet
- Empty cough medication packaging in the trash or among a person’s belongings without illness to explain it
- Altered eating habits and sleeping habits
- Changes in physical appearance or friend groups
Substance Abuse and the Holidays
Until the law is put into effect and as long as you have over-the-counter cough medications stored in your home, it is important to remain vigilant. There are a number of ways that you can help to prevent abuse of cough medicine, especially around the holidays when adults are often distracted with use of alcohol and family visits, and kids may be more likely to take advantage of the situation and abuse whatever substances they come across. You can:
- Lock up over-the-counter cold medicines in much the same way you protect prescription drugs.
- Check in with kids frequently during holiday parties so you know what they are doing and what is going on with them.
- Talk to kids before, during, and after the holidays about the dangers of using cold medicine non-therapeutically and how to respond should they find themselves in a situation in which they are offered the substance or the person driving the vehicle they are riding in is under the influence.
- Always emphasize that if they get into trouble – either because they have abused substances or their friends have – they can and should call you or another adult to help out rather than try to hide a medical emergency or operate a vehicle while under the influence.
Is Treatment Necessary?
When most people consider the different types of substances that are most commonly abused, few put cold medicines on the list. Unfortunately, for the under-18 set, because it is not always easy to get alcohol, marijuana, or illegal substances, the tendency is to take advantage of whatever is immediately available. This often means over-the-counter medications, prescription medications, and whatever their parents or caregivers keep around the house (e.g., alcohol, marijuana, or other substances). With repeated use, this can lead to addiction, and even a singular misuse can create a life-changing or life-ending medical emergency.
Many parents question when the time is right to begin treatment services when they find that their child is abusing substances. Should they wait and give them a chance to alter their behaviors? What if it gets worse? How bad should it be before treatment is appropriate?
Because substance use and abuse occur on a spectrum, there is a wide range of treatment services that are available to mix and match as needed according to the individual’s needs. Long before a child who is experimenting with drugs of any kind needs intensive inpatient care, a number of different outpatient treatment services would be beneficial. Some options include:
- Local teen support groups for kids in recovery
- Individual therapy sessions with a therapist who specializes in substance abuse treatment
- Family counseling
- Addiction education and awareness workshops for kids about the dangers associated with use of different substances
When it comes to halting a substance use issue before it becomes deadly, earlier intervention is always the best choice. What does your family need to stay safe and healthy through the holidays and into the new year?