March 23, 2016 —

Winter brought the usual coughs and colds to our house, and I headed to the drug store to stock up on medication. I have always been grateful for the relief and comfort cough medicines can bring, but this year, I viewed them in a different way.

In the past, I was likely to leave some of the medicine out near the bathroom sink or stash some in the kitchen for when the hacking became too annoying. Now, I keep them in a secure location. Before this year, I wasn’t aware that approximately one in 30 teens report using OTC cough medicine containing dextromethorphan (DXM) to get high.

Fortunately, there are many actions parents can take to address medicine abuse and keep kids safe.

1. Keep the lines of communication open and talk with your kids about medicine abuse.

While parents have likely talked to their kids about saying no to drugs, not all kids see medicine as drugs and they fail to apply the same rules. I was shocked when my 13-year-old daughter said that she thought saying “no” to drugs was about stuff like heroin, but not really applicable to items in our house. In her middle school mind, there was a distinct difference between “drugs” and “medicine.” 

I quickly set her straight, and learned firsthand why it’s hugely important for parents to specifically address medicine abuse with their kids. Talk about respect of medication, including what you can easily purchase at the local drug store. Make sure your kids know that all medications have side effects even when taken appropriately and that when taken inappropriately, they have greater and very dangerous side effects.

2. Be informed and aware of medications, amounts and ingredients.

It’s reasonable that most people have some medications that they keep handy in the home, but parents should be aware of what items are on their shelves.

“A great first step is to learn which medicines contain DXM. It’s in over 100 products,” says Jenni Roberson, Director of Communications and Media Relations for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association. You don’t have memorize all 100 items because thankfully, manufacturers now label products with an icon and a link to StopMedicineAbuse.org to make parents more aware. Take inventory of your medicines. Have a list of all medication in one place and know the quantity of each. And let your kids know that you’re keeping track.

3. Speak teen and know the terminology.

CCC, skittling, robotripping and dexting are all slang terms that refer to the abuse of OTC cough medicine. Parents need to be aware of what their kids are actually talking about. 

4. Know the signs of medicine abuse.

In addition to obvious signs such as empty cough medicine bottles, parents should also look out for other side effects and warning signs like changes in eating and sleeping patterns, as well as declining grades or even loss of interest in hobbies and favorite activities. If your child is exhibiting symptoms, seek help. Trust your gut. 

5. Monitor internet usage.

I was surprised to learn that there are as many as 40,000 active websites pushing counterfeit or otherwise illegitimate medicines to U.S. consumers. Kids can also visit social media pages that promote medicine abuse, some of which even offer instructions on how to go about it and advice on achieving certain levels of highs. Many parents keep an eye out for inappropriate content or oversharing online, but what kids do on the computer can also tip parents off to a problem with medicine abuse.

6. Talk with other parents.

Sometimes it’s harder to connect with other parents as our kids get older, but building those relationships with other moms and dads is hugely important during these challenging years. “It’s important that parents talk with other parents about OTC medicine abuse,” says Roberson. Doing so matters because kids can abuse medicines in their own home or their friends’ homes. Hopefully those households are already taking steps to prevent medicine abuse, but it is more likely to happen when medicine abuse is a topic of discussion at school meetings, sports events and other parent gatherings.

Shannan Younger is a writer and recovering attorney living in the suburbs of Chicago with her husband and teen daughter. She writes for the blog Between Us Parents and Chicago Parent and her work has been featured in the BBC and the Chicago Tribune. She has been in the cast of Listen to Your Mother and her essays have appeared in several anthologies. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.