The Frightening Facts About DXM Abuse
Cough and cold medicines are one of the oldest over-the-counter (OTC) medications sold at pharmacies nationwide. People doused themselves with opium-laced syrups and patent medicines in the late 1800s. Up until the early 20th century, heroin, opium and other addictive drugs were included in cough and cold medications and sold as remedies for babies, children and adults.
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People took patent medicines laced with addictive drugs because they didn’t know the addictive effects of the cough syrups sold at the local drugstore. Today, many people buy OTC cough medicine, and are unaware that one ingredient, dextromethorphan or DXM for short, can be abused.
Although dextromethorphan is generally safe to use when taken according to package directions, DXM abuse has become a national problem, especially among teens and young adults.
According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, in 2006, 3.1 million people aged 12 to 25 had abused over the counter cough medicine to get high. The rate is climbing among younger kids, with the California Poison Control Center reporting that among children ages 9 to 17, reports of DXM abuse and subsequent poisoning have increased 15 fold.
Given that the cough suppressant DXM is inexpensive and found in more than 125 products available without a prescription, it’s no wonder that teens and young adults are choosing DXM abuse when they want to experiment with drugs.
What Is DXM Abuse?
DXM or dextromethorphan was introduced in the 1950s as a cough suppressant. It’s one of the most commonly used cough suppressant medications and is found in the following:
Glance over the brand-name and generic cough and flu products in any pharmacy in the United States and you’ll probably see DXM or dextromethorphan listed among the primary ingredients. When used according to label directions, it is generally safe for most people.
Some people purchase DXM-based products legally as OTC medicines. They take anywhere from 10 to 50 times the recommended dose to achieve a high. The alcohol content of such medicines may increase the sense of getting high, but the DXM is the active ingredient producing the sensory changes.
In addition to DXM abuse from ingesting cough and flu medications, so-called “pure” DXM is now available as a street drug. It’s a lot more dangerous than cough medicine abuse, and teens who purchase it may accidently overdose on it thinking they need to take the same high doses of pure DXM as they do for cough syrup.
Raw DXM powder is sold legally to pharmaceutical companies to manufacture legal products, but laboratories through the world may sell it illegally over the internet to drug dealers. This is how pure DXM powder moves from being a legal, albeit regulated substance, into illegal drug territory.
Dextromethorphan Side Effects
The key to understanding DXM abuse is recognizing that it acts as a cough suppressant by affecting an area of the brain that controls coughing. At low doses, dextromethorphan side effects include cough suppression, sleepiness, and generally feeling better. When you have a really bad cold or flu, this means you feel normal again, or at least able to function.
The side effects of high amounts of DXM are said to be like that of PCP or ketamine(street name “special K”). Up to 50 times the recommended dose may be needed to achieve euphoria and hallucinations similar to that of PCP.
Dextromethorphan side effects include:
- Hallucinations. This is the reason why DXM abuse appeals to many people. At high doses, it can cause hallucinations similar to PCP.
- Dissociative effects. This refers to a feeling of being “out of your body” or floating and not caring what’s going on around you.
- Rapid eye movement. This is similar to the eye movements experienced during sleep.
- Fever and sweating. High doses can cause a dangerous elevation in body temperature.
- Blurred vision, impaired judgment and memory. Similar to intoxication from alcohol, dextromethorphan can cause vision and impairment issues.
- Slurred speech. This can be mistaken for alcohol intoxication.
- Increased blood pressure and heartbeat, or an irregular heartbeat. Dextromethorphan can cause problems with the heart.
- Nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. These issues are also common side effects.
- Coma. Coma can also occur.
DXM abuse can be fatal. Even though death through DXM poisoning is rare, DXM is often combined with street drugs to intensify the high. The resulting drug cocktail can produce lethal symptoms, especially if other stimulants or hallucinogens are added to the mix. DXM already increases blood pressure and heart rate. Combining DXM with other stimulant drugs can push the heart over the edge into heart attack, stroke or death.
Does DXM Cause Brain Damage?
There is evidence mounting that proves DXM abuse actually harms areas of the brain. Dissociative drugs activate neurons in the posterior cingulate cortex and retrosplendial cortex of the brain. Drug abuse overexcites these neurons, causing them to heat up.
Eventually the neurons die, and local cells clean up the dead neurons. The resulting lesions left behind by the dead cells are called Olney’s Damage or Olney’s Lesions.
Recognizing Dextromethorphan Addiction
Recognizing dextromethorphan addiction begins by knowing your friend, child or family member. A sudden change in behavior or large purchases of cough or cold medicines should be an immediate red flag, especially if he or she isn’t sick.
Other dextromethorphan abuse side effects include:
Dizziness. Addicts often find themselves getting dizzy unexpectedly, especially in the days immediately following a binge. This dizziness is akin to motion sickness or the feeling you get when you ride a rollercoaster. It can be accompanied by queasiness and nausea, and is one of the most common dextromethorphan side effects.
Itchiness or unexplained allergic reactions. One of the oddest dextromethorphan side effects is a sudden histamine response. Histamine is the chemical produced by the body in response to exposure to an allergic substance, and it is what triggers the body’s defenses. Nicknamed “robo itch,” it’s an all over body itch that causes excessive scratching.
Sexual dysfunction. Men who abuse DXM have trouble ejaculating, and ejaculation is often combined with a sudden muscle rigidity that’s painful. Changes in your partner’s sexual behavior may be a symptom of DXM abuse.
Facial swelling. Watch for changes in the suspected DXM abuser’s face. Fluid retention is quite common among DXM abusers, and can make the face look swollen or puffy.
Hangovers. Like all substance abuse, DXM abuse can cause painful, prolonged hangovers. Pounding headaches, inability to eat anything, shakiness and queasiness after a DXM binge are quite common and signs that your loved one may be abusing drugs.
DXM tolerance builds up slowly over time. Because DXM is more commonly abused among children and teens, most use the drug on the weekends at parties, and are able to recover sufficiently to function during the week. A few who continue to abuse the drug find that increasing levels are needed to achieve a high, and so they begin to abuse DXM several times a week, progressing to daily abuse.
Those who abuse DXM daily and find themselves addicted slowly lose their ability to think, make decisions, and function normally. It’s like the hangover never ends. Judgment is impaired, it’s difficult to perform simple tasks, and they may experience sweating, shakes and increased thirst.
Why Do People Abuse DXM?
Kids and teens today are bombarded with messages about the dangers of drugs. So why do they turn to DXM? Many teens perceive DXM as “safe” because it’s in common cough medicine, a ubiquitous item in most households. There’s also a perception that anything purchased over the counter must be safe, even if you use it at much higher doses than recommended.
Drugs go through fads among teens, and some groups view DXM highs as a fad. It can be hard for kids to say no to a swig of cough syrup at a party when their friends are all doing it. DXM abuse is often a gateway into harder drugs later in college.
DXM is a lot cheaper than street drugs. Unlike other drugs, which are so expensive they often drive people into crime to support their habit, young adults and teens can buy DXM with their own savings. It’s also legal to buy, carry and consume. You won’t get arrested for purchasing, storing or taking cough medicine the way you would using cocaine or heroin.
It can be scary to buy drugs from a dealer at school or in the neighborhood. Walking to the local pharmacy and picking up bottles of cough syrup is a lot easier. DXM is also in most households in some way, shape or form, so when kids aren’t walking down to the drug store to buy it, they’re raiding their parents cabinets for DXM products. A missing bottle of cough syrup from the medicine cabinet isn’t going to raise alarm bells for parents in the same way that a missing bottle of vodka might.
Dextromethorphan addiction is often a hidden addiction. Parents can smell marijuana on a child’s clothes or hair after a party, but they may mistake the queasiness of dextromethorphan side effects as simply food poisoning or a stomach bug.
Parents aren’t as aware of the dangers of dextromethorphan addiction as they are about teen alcohol and drug abuse. They’re looking for the signs they’ve read about in magazines or seen on television, and while DXM abuse does produce some of the typical hallmarks of addiction, like sleeplessness, sweating and memory loss, these can be easily explained away.
Without finding evidence of drugs in their child’s rooms or school lockers, adults may assume that their suspicions are unfounded. DXM addiction is easier to hide from parents, teachers and authority figures.
DXM can actually shut down the central nervous system when ingested in large amounts. Although this rarely happens when people abuse OTC medicines like cough syrup, pure DXM powder is so concentrated that overdosing is common.
However, another type of overdose can occur when various cold and flu medications are all taken at once to achieve a DXM high. Because many of these medications contain additional ingredients to treat other symptoms, and they’re ingested in large amounts to achieve a high, the combination of DXM and other drugs can be fatal. Drinking alcohol while taking DXM is also common, and the two together can impair or shut down the central nervous system more easily than when taken alone.
DXM can kill in other ways. The confusion, hallucinations, dizziness and blurred vision result in people doing reckless and foolish things. Teens have been known to fall from balconies, stumble into traffic or misjudge their abilities to drive while high on DXM.
The resulting accidents can lead to serious injuries or even death for themselves or others.
If DXM abuse continues for long periods of time, a person can become addicted to both the psychological effects and the stimulant effects of the drug. Withdrawal symptoms include sleeplessness, because the continued abuse of DXM revs up the central nervous system so much that it takes time for the cascade of neurotransmitters to calm down. Other symptoms of DXM withdrawal include elevated blood pressure, irregular heartbeat and sweating. These symptoms usually calm down within a few days of abstinence from DXM.
Those seeking treatment for DXM abuse should consult with their physician or call a rehab center like 12 Keys Rehab for an evaluation. Because DXM affects the central nervous system and the heart, going cold turkey may cause unsafe rises in blood pressure and heartrate.
One of the most important aspects of DXM abuse and recovery is behavioral or cognitive therapy. Understanding what drives you to seek release from daily life through substance abuse is an important and valuable aspect of rehab. A skilled therapist, psychologist or addiction counselor can help you learn new tools to cope with life without DXM or other drugs and to avoid resuming your dependency or transferring it to another substance or behavior.
DXM Recovery at 12 Keys Rehab
If you or someone you love suffers from dextromethorphan addiction, help is available. 12 Keys Rehab offers individualized recovery services in a beautiful natural setting. After admission, you’ll be monitored 24/7 by our caring staff during your detoxification period. We know that recovery can be challenging, and we do our best to make you comfortable during your stay with us.
The 12 Keys Rehab approach focuses on the individual. A 12-step approach encompasses physical, mental and spiritual recovery, with an emphasis on family involvement and continued care after you leave our facility.
Our low client-to-counselor ratio ensures you’ll receive personalized attention during your recovery period. Services include nutrition, physical activities, group and personal counseling sessions, 12-step meetings, sponsorship and more to help you beat your DXM addiction.
Recovery is possible. We know, because we’ve helped many people successfully recover from drug and alcohol addiction. At 12 Keys Rehab, every client is treated like a family member by staff experienced in the recovery process.
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