By Kathleen Murphy Castillo
Over-the-counter cold products are a staple of many medicine cabinets. Often these medications contain the cough suppressant dextromethorphan (DXM). Unique to over-the-counter pharmaceuticals, DXM is also a drug of abuse, used to get high and reach a dissociative (out-of-body) state.
Common slang terms derive from brand names, such as “robo-tripping,” which comes from Robitussin, or the abuse of gelcaps containing DXM, which is sometimes called “skittling” or “dexing.” Inexpensive and legally sold to all age groups, cough and cold remedies are used non-medically at least once in the lifetime of 3.1 million Americans ages 12 to 25. A recent survey showed nearly 1 million had done so in the past year.
The University at Buffalo Research Institute on Addictions recently highlighted DXM as a concern, noting that various websites give potential abusers tips on how to megadose to achieve particular plateaus of a hallucinogenic experience. Young people do not realize that taking large amounts of DXM causes dangerous physical reactions. Suicidal depression and psychotic delusions can lead to reckless and violent behavior. Patients ages 12 to 20 account for 51 percent of emergency department visits for nonmedical use of DXM. When deliberately abused, at least one in three develop increasing tolerance and longing for the drug.
In an article featured in The Buffalo News’ NeXt section on May 16, a person who has abused DXM was interviewed and stated that it wasn’t until someone ended up in the hospital that he realized the damage his drug use was having on himself and others. “When I tripped for the first time on cold medicine, I thought I had the world but really I was just high. It made no sense.” He went to jail, got treatment for drug addiction and began to get his life back.
Western New York newspapers are reporting that teens are being arrested for shoplifting cough medicine. Young people from Erie County communities large and small have wound up in the Holding Center for behavior linked to DXM abuse.
Most tragically, a mother with a young son died when the driver of her car, under the influence of DXM, swerved into traffic on a Buffalo street.
Local families and substance abuse professionals have said “enough” and are pleased to be in agreement with the Consumer Health Products Association and others in the pharmaceutical industry in calling for a ban on the sale of DXM to minors.
Three downstate counties have already banned the sale of DXM to minors, as well as the state of California. On June 6, the Erie County Legislature passed a resolution in support of the bill and it deserves to move through the State Senate and Assembly for a full vote and prompt passage.
Kathleen Murphy Castillo is a licensed master social worker.