By Alana Semuels
March 24, 2005
It's just cold medicine, he rationalized. How much harm could it do?
But it did not take long for Smith's son to turn from a shy, easygoing teenager into what she calls "a raving lunatic." He would drink four bottles of cough syrup at a time, or swallow tablets of Coricidin Cough and Cold, and become furiously angry and violent, breaking things in his house and punching the wall.
Since then, he's been in and out of the hospital, incarcerated twice, and plagued with mental health problems that doctors say might affect him for the rest of his life.
"You can take a sweet loving child and they become something that you are afraid of _ you can't even believe it's your child," said Smith, of Mechanicsburg, Pa., about the dangers of over-the-counter cold medicine. "It's an awful, awful roller coaster for parents."
Cold medicine and cough syrup have been around for decades, and kids have experimented with them for just as long, but a string of recent incidents suggest the problem is becoming more widespread.
In the past six months, teenagers from Seattle to Ohio to Florida have either died or been hospitalized because of cold-tablet overdoses. The number of calls to poison control centers about teens abusing DXM - the active ingredient in these cold medicines - has more than doubled from 2000 to 2003.
In Pennsylvania alone, three men were caught stealing Coricidin tablets from a Wal-Mart in Ebensburg last week. The same day, a convenience store owner in Westmont was charged with child endangerment for selling boxes of cold medicine and cigarettes to a 14-year-old. And in the last month, three teens have overdosed on Coricidin in one school district, according to the Allegheny County District Attorney's office.
By surfing the Internet, teens can readily learn how to abuse cold medicine and read about its potent effects. They can head over to any drugstore and buy packets of the medicine without doing anything illegal. And they can slip right under the radar of even the most vigilant parents who are looking for kids reeking of cigarette smoke or alcohol.
These cold medicines contain dextromethorphan, or DXM, a substance that can cause feelings of detachment, distorted perceptions, and a dreamlike or euphoric state. High dosages can also cause blurred vision, shallow breathing, fever, coma, an increase in heart rate, and in some users, acute anger.
The parents of today's teens might have abused cold medicine by "robotripping," or drinking cough syrup. But new cold tablets make it easier to feel the same effects by just popping a couple of pills, commonly called "skittling" because the red pills resemble Skittles candy.
The pills are easy to hide from parents and extremely dangerous.
Many teens assume that experimenting with cold medicine is not risky because they can buy it legally, unlike heroin or marijuana, said Ed Krenzelok, director of the Pittsburgh Poison Control center.
"The overwhelming feeling is that nonprescription means nontoxic, but nothing could be farther from the truth," he said.
Most cold medicines contain ingredients that are toxic when ingested in large doses and can cause massive liver damage, increased heart rate, a lack of coordination, seizures and a coma. Teens must ingest a significant amount of DXM to feel these effects, but procuring the medicines is easy enough.
"Kids are very astute," Krenzelok said. "They can buy that stuff at a 7-Eleven or anywhere. It's a non-controlled, nonprescription cough and cold medication."