WASHINGTON (Reuters) - About 3.1 million Americans ages 12 to 25 — about 5 percent of that age group — have at some time used an over-the-counter cough and cold medication to get high, a U.S. government survey to be released on Thursday said.
These young people are using cough syrups and cold pills in large doses to induce hallucinations, “out-of-body” experiences or other effects, officials said.
The 2006 survey was a snapshot of abuse of these medications among young people, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration or SAMHSA said in a report. The results are based on interviews with almost 45,000 people ages 12 to 25, the researchers said.
“The survey tells me that parents need to be very concerned about the over-the-counter medicines that they have in their medicine cabinet,” Dr. H. Westley Clark, director of SAMHSA’s Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, said in a telephone interview.
“And young adults need to be concerned about the effects that over-the-counter cold medications and cough medications have on their functioning.”
Adolescents and young adults are thought to have the highest rates of abuse of such medications, the officials said. Nearly 1 million — or 1.7 percent of them — had done so in the past year, according to the survey.
The abuse was highest among whites — at levels three times that of blacks. Overall, the level of abuse of these drugs is comparable to levels of use of LSD, methamphetamine or the drug ecstasy in this age group, the agency said. Among those ages 12 to 17, abuse of these drugs was most common among girls, while it shifted to young men among those 18 to 25.
This type of abuse has been known for years, but this survey sets out the best numbers to date quantifying the problem, officials said. The results do not show whether this type of drug abuse is rising, falling or staying the same.
Among those surveyed who said they had misused one of these cough and cold medications in the past year, about 30 percent said they used a NyQuil brand product, 18 percent used a Coricidin product and 18 percent used a Robitussin product.
The cough suppressant dextromethorphan, or DXM, is used in more than 140 cough and cold products available without a prescription in the United States and is considered generally safe at recommended doses.
In large doses, it can cause hallucinations or “out-of-body” experiences like those caused by hallucinogens such as PCP and ketamine, also known as “Special K,” the agency said.
A DXM overdose can cause vomiting, uncontrolled violent muscle spasms, irregular heartbeat, delirium and death, the agency said.
Editing by Maggie Fox and Cynthia Osterman