Warning Signs of Teen OTC Drug Abuse

By Scott Brand Posted May 05, 2014 under Guest Authors

This post was updated in October of 2023.

If your teen was abusing over-the-counter (OTC) medicines, are you absolutely confident that you would know? Unfortunately, the warning signs may not be as definitive as other forms of teen substance misuse like alcohol or marijuana abuse.

OTC medications, such as cough medicine, do have their place in remedying ailments when used appropriately, but one highly overlooked aspect is the harmful – and sometimes deadly – implications they possess when abused. In fact, because they’re legal and do not require a prescription, OTC medications can be obtained fairly easily. And, although some states are taking action to make it more difficult for teens to purchase OTC cough medicine in hopes that the prevalence of its abuse will decrease, the problem continues to be widespread: one in 31 teens reports abusing excessive amounts of DXM, the active ingredient in OTC cough medicine, to get high.

As the Director of Public Outreach at Inspirations for Youth, a teen drug rehab facility, I can tell you that some of the more common teen OTC medicine abuse symptoms (such as mood swings, anger outbursts, unusual sleeping patterns, disinterest in hobbies and activities or a new set of friends) may just be the result of teens progressing normally through adolescence. And herein lies the problem: although parents have made tremendous strides in detecting illegal teen drug use – most are not well versed in teen OTC medicine abuse awareness and what to look for in their teen’s demeanor.

As a parent, it’s important for you to be aware of the warning signs that could suggest your teen is abusing OTC medicines.

Does your teen:

  • Seem depressed or withdrawn?
  • Display sudden outbursts of anger?
  • Visit pro-drug Internet sites that have information about how to obtain and use OTC drugs to get high? View a list of these common websites here.
  • Abandon hobbies and interests he/she previously enjoyed?

If the answer to any of those questions was “yes,” don’t be alarmed; instead, try some of the following tips to learn more about what your teen may be going through and provide guidance and support if there’s a problem:

  • Talk to your teen. Speak up about your concerns and make sure your teen knows he or she can share anything with you.
  • Check your teen’s internet browser history.
  • Provide structure in your teen’s life by creating and sticking to a routine. For example, have mandatory family dinners every evening, or make sure your teen cleans his or her room every day.
  • Talk to your teen’s friends and their parents to make sure you’re in the know about your teen’s everyday activities and behaviors.

There are countless dangers when teens abuse OTC drugs, which is why these drugs are intended to be taken under the direction of a parent or guardian. If there is a problem, you have the power to be part of the solution. I know it can be difficult, but you can do it – and you’ll be glad you did.

Scott Brand works in the outreach department of Inspirations for Youth, one of the nation’s leading Teen Drug Rehab Facilities. He spends his time talking to the teens about their inspirational stories of recovery.

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