Abuse of cold remedy catches on among teens
Cheap high has substantially boosted calls to area poison center
The news that nine Oak Creek High School students skipped school one day this month and downed cough and cold tablets to get high is a story too familiar to Cleon Suggs.
A drug and alcohol counselor for adolescents, Suggs estimates that of the 500 youths he visits in a year, usually in juvenile detention, 30% to 40% report experimenting with over-the-counter medication, specifically Coricidin HBP, to get high, he said. He works for the Milwaukee Adolescent Health Program, in collaboration with the Medical College of Wisconsin and Fighting Back Inc.
"Locally, it's not addressed as much right now as the marijuana, the heroin that's surfacing, and other drugs," he said. "Coricidin is on the bottom of the list. The Coricidin has caused death."
Abuse of cough and cold medication, a cheap high, has substantially boosted the calls to the Poison Center at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin. Manager Mary Powers said her office has logged 150 reports since January 2005 on use and abuse of cough medicine alone, compared with eight in 2004. Sixty of the calls required medical treatment, she said.
Prescription and over-the-counter drug abuse has become the focus of the latest awareness campaign by Partnership for a Drug-Free America, based in New York.
The group this year released the findings of its 2005 Partnership Attitude Tracking Study, a survey of more than 7,300 teens in grades seven to 12, which found 1 in 10 teens report abusing cough medicine to get high. The study also found that 55% of teens don't agree strongly that using cough medicines to get high is risky.
Coricidin is the same drug that police learned the teens in the Oak Creek case, most of them 16, were using when an officer found them in an apartment Sept. 14. Police learned that most of the teens had taken 16 to 20 tablets each. All were taken to emergency rooms, some disoriented and unable to answer officers' questions.
The teens told police they were "skittling," a term that compares the drug's red tablets to the popular candy. Besides receiving the drug's ill effects, each also received $109 truancy tickets, police said.
One parent of the Oak Creek students, who did not want his family's name used, said he hoped the experience would dissuade his child from ever attempting to abuse cold medicine again. He said his son experienced heavy breathing, "real red" eyes and "all of a sudden tears would start running down. I noticed a lot of zoning. . . . There was a lot of memory loss. He doesn't even remember most of the night in the emergency room."
He added, "All I can say is it wasn't fun."
Oak Creek police Lt. Dan Hermann said, "When you look at what the effects of this are - confusion, hallucinations, brain damage, death - it's not a good thing."
Drug prevention specialists say some users seek an ingredient in the cough medicine called dextromethorphan, or DXM. In high doses, it can cause visual hallucinations, nausea, vomiting, irregular heartbeat and other ill effects. Although other drugs containing DXM are abused, as well, Coricidin, also known as "Triple C," is popular among teen users, authorities said.
Authorities warn, however, that mixed with other ingredients, such as acetaminophen, the cold medication can become even more dangerous, such as the case of two girls who suffered liver damage about a year and a half ago, according to Powers, at the local Poison Center.
In many cases, some youths are risk takers who want to see what will happen by experimenting with cough and cold medication, said Maria Kolda, a prevention service program director for Impact Inc., the Wisconsin affiliate for the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. Others, however, are looking for an easy way to self-medicate.
"Looking at the high number of young people experiencing stress, depression, anxiety, it's not just about getting high," she said. "It's a form of escape."
Some of her peers might be making dangerous choices, but Ashley Flood is not. With a 3.9 grade-point average, the college-bound senior from Wauwatosa West High School spends some of her time volunteering as a teen presenter for Impact, having committed to a drug-free life.
Impact trained 329 peer presenters in the 2005-'06 school year, an effort now being organized for the new school year. Last year, the presenters visited schools throughout Milwaukee County, serving 5,477 students in grades four through eight.
Flood shares with students a message of spending time with activities other than drugs. She is involved in softball, Key Club and National Honor Society and plays French horn in the school band.
"We always get the question, 'Do you know anyone who uses it?' Our response to that is we know they're out there, but we don't associate with them generally," Flood said. "I think it's good for younger kids to have high-schoolers present to them. They look up to us."
Popular because it is cheap, at $5 to $6 a box, Coricidin is also easily accessible if it can be purchased by an older friend or simply stolen off store shelves. Some stores, in response to a rise of reports citing abuse of over-the-counter medication, put restrictions on the sale of products containing dextromethorphan, including Coricidin HBP.
Carol Hively, corporate spokeswoman for Walgreen Co., based in Deerfield, Ill., said most stores, including those in the Milwaukee area, took Coricidin HBP off of shelves and put the product behind the counter in July 2005 to prevent shoplifting.
Julie Lux, speaking for Schering-Plough Corp., which manufactures Coricidin, said the company monitors and investigates all incidents reported of individuals abusing its products, including the case in Oak Creek.
"We are sadly aware of the issues of dextromethorphan abuse, especially among young people," Lux said. "We are committed to efforts to educate about the dangers of drug abuse in general, and this medication in particular."
Anti-drug advocates said that, even with the restrictions, youths are still abusing the cough medication.
Suggs, a drug counselor for 17 years, recalled his talks with a Waukesha County girl recently released from juvenile detention. He said she was a heavy Coricidin user.
"She indulged. Coridicin relaxes the kids. It takes their inhibitions away and leaves them open to try other drugs," he said. "She actually tried some crack cocaine. It's just amazing sometimes how those over-the-counter drugs relaxes them, makes them goofy and then, boom, somebody offers another drug and there they go.
"This is a 14-year-old with crack cocaine. It's just that easy, just that quick. She had been using crack cocaine for the last couple of months. She had been on the run. It all started with her indulging in over-the-counter drugs that some older kids obtained for her."
I just read this in the paper this morning.
I love the Coricidin/Crack Cocaine connection....
I mean, if you have a hook-up for crack, cant you get something better than DXM to try in the first place?
After one comes, through contact with it's administrators, no longer to cherish greatly the law as a remedy in abuses, then the bottle becomes a sovereign means of direct action. If you cannot throw it at least you can always drink out of it. - Ernest Hemingway
If it is life that you feel you are missing I can tell you where to find it. In the law courts, in business, in government. There is nothing occurring in the streets. Nothing but a dumbshow composed of the helpless and the impotent. -Cormac MacCarthy
He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus