September 14th, 2010
09:29 AM ET
Last year, more than 8,000 people, mostly teens, were treated at emergency rooms because they abused over-the-counter cough suppressants, according to the Food and Drug Administration. Now in an effort to control these substances, the FDA is considering whether to make medicines like Nyquil, Robitussin and Tylenol Cold tablets, prescription drugs.
An FDA advisory committee, which is meeting today in College Park, Maryland will review data, provided to them by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. The DEA, which asked for the hearing back in 2007, says it saw a 70 percent increase in emergency room visits between 2004 and 2008, because of teens using large amounts of cough syrup to get high.
The ingredient in these medicines that creates the euphoria is dextromethorphan, also known as "dex" or DXM. It's found in many products at drug stores. Kids who abuse these suppressants, many times mix them with prescription drugs or marijuana, according to experts. The practice has a few names including "robotripping". The combination can cause a spike in heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature, and if a child consumes enough of it, it can be deadly.
Misty Fetko, a registered nurse from Santa Barbara, California knew the dangers of illegal drugs and alcohol. She talked to both her sons about it. But she never suspected her eldest boy, Carl, was using cough syrup to get high. That's until she started seeing empty bottles of it in their home and in his car. By the time it dawned on her that he was in danger, it was too late. A few weeks before he was scheduled to attend college, she found him in his bed, unresponsive. His heart had stopped.
Autopsy reports showed a combination of high doses of DEX in his system, along with other prescription medicines. "I never would have thought this to happen." said Fetko. " We use to lock up our liquor. Instead, I should have been locking up my medicine cabinet."
Fetko's family is not alone. Eight percent or 1.3 million teens have reported abusing over-the-counter cough suppressants over the last year, according to the Partnership for a Drug Free America reports. The statistic may seem high, but it's much lower than the number of teens abusing other substances like inhalants and marijuana. So to many drug experts, clamping down on these medicines, that more than 40 million people use safely to help fight coughs and colds, seems a little extreme.
"This is not the biggest drug problem facing America's families, these days." says Steve Pasierb, president of Partnership. "But, obviously, the problem needs to be addressed. We think parental education is key."
The Consumer Healthcare Products Association agrees. As a representative for hundreds of drug manufacturers, the CHPA believes very few parents have heard about cough suppressant abuse and if they knew, they would address it.
"Many parents don't know about this type of drug abuse." notes Linda Suydam, president of CHPA. "We have found that parents who do discuss drugs with their kids have a 50 percent better outcome of keeping their kids away from any drug form."
If the advisory committee agrees that these drugs should become prescription, they will forward their recommendation to the FDA, which will make its decision based on the committee's findings. Although the FDA does not have to follow the committee's suggestion, they traditionally do.
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