Effects of Cough Medicine Abuse

By Julie Boehlke ; Updated August 14, 2017

According to StopMedicineAbuse.org, one in 10 kids and teens ages 12 through 17 have abused cough syrup or medicine. They turn to over-the-counter cough medicine as way to get high. The primary ingredient, dextromethorphan, works at combating coughs, but cough medicine can sport addictive qualities if taken in high dosages. Dextromethorphan alters the minds and bodies of those who abuse the drug. In high doses, it works as a central nervous system depressant and a dissociative painkiller. It is a serious problem, and if someone is abusing cough medicine, professional treatment should be sought immediately.


Dextromethorphan, or DXM, is a cough suppressant found in most cough medicines. Cough medicine generally comes in either a syrup bottle or a small gel pill that holds the same amount of active ingredients. Other medicines include lozenges and tablets that contain around 30 mg of dextromethorphan. There are several brand names that contain dextromethorphan, such as Coricidin HBP, Delsym, Pertussin, Drixoral, Vicks Formula 44, Triaminic, Sudafed and Contac. These medications should be taken according to package instructions, and usage should be monitored in children.

Reasons for Use

Most cold medicines are used strictly for the purpose of suppressing a cough and soothing a sore throat. There are people who wish to use the cough syrup to alter their mood. DXM contains many of the same chemicals and ingredients used to make morphine. In higher-than-recommended doses, cough medicine creates a depressant effect on the body. In some cases, it can also cause a hallucinogenic effect that can heighten pleasure and suppress the emotional state. Many kids and teenagers abuse the drug because it is relatively inexpensive and easy to obtain.

Side Effects

Side effects from abusing cough medicine can occur by simply taking twice as much as the recommended dosage. These effects can include hyperactivity, hallucinogenic visuals, body disassociation, inability to properly move and use arms, legs and fingers, vomiting, jabbing abdominal pain, numbness, headache, elevated blood pressure, unconsciousness and seizures.


If high amounts of cough medicine are taken, serious consequences can occur, such as delayed respiratory response, slow or impaired breathing, irregular heart rate and in some cases death. When the drug is combined with other drugs such as heroin, marijuana or cocaine, the effects can be devastating, even toxic. Cough syrup in high amounts can induce vomiting. Many abusers drink the medicine quickly to combat the nausea and vomiting—this means the medicine is ingested at a faster rate, causing symptoms to come on quicker and faster.


Because of the addictive qualities that many people showcase when they abuse the drug, professional help is highly recommended to assure proper treatment. Severe cases may involve an inpatient treatment facility, especially if there are other drugs being used in unison with the cough medicine. In some cases, it may involve a few sessions of outpatient therapy with a psychologist or medical doctor who can assist with symptom management and behavioral therapy.

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