This post is a hard look at something we all hope to never have to know. Thank you to the lovely LeeAnn of Five Moms for helping us navigate this issue!

Substance abuse: it’s a topic every parent hopes to never have to seriously address with their teen. Unfortunately, it’s an issue that’s far more prevalent than we’d like to acknowledge.

As a social marketer, I have worked in prevention for more than 15 years, with the past seven directly in educating parents and adolescents about substance abuse. From my professional and personal experiences, I know that many teens believe that abusing over-the-counter (OTC) cough medicine is “less dangerous” than abusing illicit drugs. Teens may have this belief, and ultimately choose to experiment with OTC cough medicine, because it is affordable and perceived to be easily available. In fact, roughly one out of three teenagers knows someone who has abused OTC cough medicine to get high.

Look Closer: The Sneaky Warning Signs of OTC Medicine Abuse - The Art of Better

Let’s walk through a scenario that could play out at home:

It’s the wintertime, and you feel your annual cold coming on. When you go to your medicine cabinet, you find that all your cough medicine is missing. You think nothing of it. Maybe your memory has failed you once again! That same week, you go into your 16-year-old son’s room to speak with him, and see two empty bottles of cough medicine in his trash can. When you ask him about it, he says that they both belonged to his friend who stayed over the past weekend and was sick. Over the next few months, your son’s friends change, as do his sleeping and eating patterns. His grades in school are also slipping. On one of the rare weekends he decides to spend at home, you approach him about the recent changes. He is especially combative, arguing that you are imagining things, and says that he is no different than before. You remind yourself that he’s a teen boy, so maybe it’s all a part of growing up.

The above scenario highlights several warning signs of OTC medicine abuse (missing medicine from home medicine cabinets, empty cough medicine bottles in your teen’s room, changes in your teen’s friends and behaviors, declining grades, and a hostile attitude) that many parents might simply shrug off as “typical” teen behaviors. Other warning signs include:

  • Hearing your child use certain slang terms for cough medicine abuse, such as skittles, skittling, tussin, robo-tripping, robo, CCC, triple Cs, dexing and DXM
  • Seeing that your teen has visited pro-drug websites that provide information on how to abuse cough medicine
  • Your teen’s loss of interest in hobbies or favorite activities
  • The arrival of unexpected packages in the mail
  • Unexplained credit card charges or the disappearance of household money
  • Unusual chemical or medicinal smells on your child or in his or her room

While OTC cough medicines have a long history of safety and effectiveness when taken as directed, when abused, the cough suppressant active ingredient dextromethorphan (DXM) can cause side effects like mild distortions of color and sound, hallucinations, and loss of motor control. Other side effects of abuse to look out for include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Stomach pain
  • Slurred speech
  • Rapid heart beat
  • Drowsiness
  • Numbness of fingers and toes
  • Disorientation

When parenting teens, it can be hard to draw the line between being aware and being overly suspicious. You want your teen to feel trusted, but you also want to protect your child from making poor decisions. One of the best ways to find balance is to keep your eyes open to the warning signs and side effects outlined above. Of course, some of these may simply be a result of your teen being a teenager. However, if you think your teen might be abusing OTC cough medicine or other substances, trust your gut and start a conversation. Openly voice your suspicions, but avoid direct accusations that may make your teen feel attacked. More than anything, you want your child to know that you care about his or her health and safety. If you need support, check out these helpful resources. You can also learn more about preventing medicine abuse here.

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LeeAnn Weniger-Mandrillo is the mother of her young son, James, and raised her nephew Andrew, who is now 23. LeeAnn is passionate about empowering individuals, families and communities through her work with Stop Medicine Abuse and the Five Moms.