The Threat of the Home Medicine Cabinet and Cough Medicine Abuse

Many parents are surprised when they learn about the threat of the home medicine cabinet. They don’t realize that over-the-counter medications (OTC) like cough medicine can be a real danger to teenagers. Beyond just cough medicine, teens often look to relieve the pain caused by mental health challenges by abusing drugs that are easy to access.

Therefore, the home medicine cabinet becomes an option for a quick escape from reality. The real questions are, Why are teens looking in the medicine cabinet in the first place, and how can parents make sure they get the help they need?

If there is an underlying mental health issue that is driving a teen to find a quick source of relief,  assessment and treatment are essential. Healing from a substance use disorder, including OTC medication abuse, depends on first achieving sobriety and then addressing root causes.

The Home Medicine Cabinet as a Gateway to OTC Medication Abuse

Since OTC medication abuse typically begins in the home, teenagers—and parents—may take it more lightly. For many teenagers, the first step into OTC medication abuse is casual because cough syrup doesn’t seem like a big deal. Stealing cough syrup or painkillers from mom’s medicine cabinet doesn’t seem as bad as buying and using illegal drugs. However, the real problem isn’t what they’re using, it’s why they’re using.

That said, when parents suspect a teen may be abusing over-the-counter medication, it’s important to limit access immediately. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), two-thirds of teens who misuse pain relievers say that they got them from family and friends, including their home’s medicine cabinets. In addition, SAMHSA notes, “Safe storage and disposal of medications diminish opportunities for easy access.”

Here’s a list of some of the OTC medications abused by teenagers:

  1. Cough syrup
  2. OTC pain medications
  3. OTC weight loss pills with amphetamines
  4. OTC sleeping pills with diphenhydramine

As a recovering cough medicine addict, Randi Newton describes cough medicine as her gateway drug in an article in The Fix. It didn’t seem like such a big deal, she said, until she became addicted. She writes of the cough medicine abuse she fell prey to along with her boyfriend: “We got rid of the measuring cups as our tolerance levels surpassed the suggested daily limit. Soon we were splitting a bottle between us every night … My affair with cough medicine lasted far longer than any romantic relationship. By the time I realized the habit had turned nasty, I had been guzzling the medicine for over two years.”

When Teens Experiment with OTC Medication Abuse

Often, when teens experiment with OTC medications, they have no idea the potentially harmful effects of the drugs they are taking. Hence, they abuse drugs that are safe when taken at the recommended dosages but can be deadly when abused.

A perfect example is OTC pain medication. While most commonly used nonprescription pain relievers are safe for healthy people when used as directed, others can cause deadly side effects. Statistics show that 16,500 people die and 103,000 are hospitalized each year due to side effects of the category of drugs known as NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), such as aspirin and ibuprofen.

However, when it comes to the home medicine cabinet, cough medicine is often first on the list of OTC drug options that teens consider. Since codeine was removed from cough medicines in the 1970s, many parents no longer think these non-prescription medications are dangerous. However, nothing is further from the truth.

Indeed, a highly abused drug called dextromethorphan, or DXM, replaced codeine in most cough medicines. By taking large quantities of many cough syrups on the market, teens get high, often going into psychotic states. Cough syrup abuse is hallucinogenic and can cause a break from reality. Known as “Robo-tripping” by millennials and Generation Z, the abuse of OTC cough medications is a severe threat.

Securing the Home Medicine Cabinet First, Then Understanding Why

Dealing with cough medicine abuse and OTC medication abuse begins with securing the home medicine cabinet. Thus, locking medicine cabinets and preventing teens’ easy access to over-the-counter medicine is a reasonable first step. Even before a parent knows why a teen is in pain, the home medicine cabinet needs to be secure

Here are some tips for reducing access to OTC medication and protecting teenagers, from First Medline Plus, a trusted health information site sourced from the US National Library of Medicine:

  • Have an honest discussion with a teenager about the dangers of cough syrup and other medications.
  • Lock the medicine cabinet or keep dangerous over-the-counter medications in a less accessible place.
  • Never stockpile over-the-counter-medications; having too many bottles of cough syrup opens the door to temptation.
  • Use a permanent marker to keep track of how much is in each bottle or container in each medicine cabinet in the home.
  • Keep an eye on a teen’s Internet use, watching for dark web traffic or other suspicious websites, like discussion rooms or social media postings that promote the abuse of DXM or other drugs, both legal and illegal.
  • Set boundaries and rules, including a no-tolerance policy for OTC abuse.

Both the Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA) and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) offer resources to help parents prevent medication abuse. For example, CHPA details the specific efforts of many state governments to prevent teen cough medicine abuse. Moreover, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) offers a guide to over-the-counter drug abuse on its website.

Addressing the Root Causes of OTC Medication Abuse

Given the dangers, parents need to find out why their teenagers are making these choices. By scheduling a mental health assessment, such as a depression screening, parents and teens uncover the root cause behind OTC medication abuse or cough syrup abuse. Such an understanding opens the door to healing.

Once a teen has been given a mental health diagnosis, the family can seek appropriate treatment, ideally a program designed specifically for adolescents with co-occurring disorders. Comprehensive and integrated treatment approaches use a variety of clinical, experiential, and complementary modalities to reveal and heal underlying issues such as trauma, depression, anxiety, or other mental health disorders.

The medicine cabinet may yield the first clues that a teenager is suffering. But stopping OTC medication abuse is only the first step in helping teens find their way back to health and thriving.