Are Adolescents More Likely to Abuse OTC Drugs?

Are adolescents more likely to abuse OTC drugs? As a group, yes, absolutely, teens are more likely to abuse drugs in general, whether they be OTC, prescription or illicit. They are more likely to become addicted than adults, too. However, teens may believe that OTC drugs are safer than other drugs because they can be purchased in a drug store or market without a physician’s order. Even many adults believe that OTC medications couldn’t be very dangerous and they may use them carelessly as a result. This just isn’t true. Many OTC medications can cause severe health problems and overdose if misused. Some are even fatal.

Adolescents also have another serious disadvantage: The human brain isn’t fully developed until about the age of 25 or so. This is especially true of the part of the brain controlling impulse behavior and reasoning. This is why there are high levels of risk-taking activity in this age group. It’s also why silly adolescent behavior is often displayed even among young people in their early twenties, particularly males. Their bodies may be fully mature, but their brains aren’t, and just like their younger counterparts, they may still be highly influenced by peer pressure.


Most states now have regulations against the sale of a cough suppressant called dextromethorphan or DXM to persons who appear to be under the age of 18. These laws are intended to curb the common, disturbing, rising practice of “robotripping,” which consists of deliberately ingesting large amounts of the DXM found in hundreds of OTC cough and cold preparations. DXM is an effective, non-narcotic cough suppressant when used at the recommended dosage range, which is about 5 to 15 milligrams every four to 12 hours depending on the exact formulation of the product. That is, some are time-released products intended to last over an eight to 12 hour period.

Teens who engage in robotripping, which is so called because DXM is an ingredient in several types of Robitussin cough syrup, ingest many, many times the recommended dosage of DXM. Large doses may produce feelings of euphoria and may also induce hallucinations and disassociation. This latter term means that the person may feel out of body and disconnected from reality. Some robotrippers have reported sensations of flying. Although states have reacted to restrict DXM access to teens, the laws are only partly effective. Since the medications containing the DXM are on the main floor of the store and not behind the pharmacy counter, teens can steal them. Some may wheedle an older sibling, still themselves an adolescent but at least 18, into buying it for them. Others may raid their parents’ medicine cabinets or those of relatives and friends. It’s not that hard to get. Certainly, it’s easier than getting alcohol.

What is DXM?

Dextromethorphan is an interesting compound. It’s the chemically rotated version of levomethorphan, a powerful opioid far stronger than morphine. Although the two are isomers, which means they have the same chemical formula but a different arrangement of atoms, only levomethorphan is a controlled substance and a narcotic. Its isomer, dextromethorphan, is devoid of any narcotic activity in the brain and acts only on certain brain receptors related to the cough mechanism. At recommended dosage ranges, DXM has few to no side effects and is quite safe and effective. However, the same cannot be said for those who deliberately take obscene amounts of it. Very high doses may produce the following unpleasant effects:

  • Dizziness
  • Slurred speech
  • Stumbling
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Disorientation
  • Distortions of color and sound
  • Hallucinations
  • Feelings of disassociation

Although it may sound like a list from a nightmare, some of these effects are considered desirable and are sought after by robotrippers.

What Can you Do?

As the parent of an adolescent, you can talk to your teen or even preteen. Ten is not too young to talk to your youngster about drugs, especially robotripping. This is because DXM is everywhere and is so easy for teens to get. Explain what robotripping is and let your child know that you are well aware of it. Tell them it’s dangerous and could harm them. It’s better for them to be prepared than to not be prepared. Keep the lines of communication open, and don’t be surprised if your child has already heard of robotripping. Finally, tell your child if they’re ever in a sticky situation with peers to just use you for an excuse and make it sound like the punishment they would get from you is just not worth it.

For More Information

If you’d like to know more about teen abuse of DXM and other OTC drugs, give us a call anytime at 833-497-3808. Our staff counselors can answer any questions you may have about teenage drug abuse and also direct you to resources you may need for more assistance.