Can You Get Addicted to Cough and Cold Medicines?

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Close up of cough and cold medicine being poured into a spoon.

©Shutterstock/Tibor Duris

Every year, millions of Americans take cough and cold medicines to help reduce symptoms that come with a cold. When they’re taken as instructed, these medicines can be safe and effective.

But they can become harmful if they’re misused—for example, if a person takes more of the medicine than they’re supposed to, or uses the medicine when they don’t have cold symptoms.

A person can also get addicted to cough and cold medicines. Addiction happens when somebody can’t stop using a drug, even though using it has bad effects on their life.

Several cough and cold medicines contain ingredients that are psychotropic (mind-altering) when they’re taken in higher-than-recommended dosages.

  • One kind of cough medicine—called dextromethorphan (DXM)—acts on the same brain receptors as hallucinogenic drugs do.
    • So, misusing DXM can lead to hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that aren’t there).
    • Misusing DXM can also cause loss of coordination, nausea, increased blood pressure, and other health problems.
  • Some prescription cough medicines contain codeine, an opioid drug that attaches to the same receptors as opioids like heroin do.
    • If a person misuses codeine over and over, they can develop a tolerance for it. That means it takes more and more of the drug for them to get the same feeling they got when they used it the first time. This is how addiction starts.
    • Misusing codeine can also cause a person’s heart rate and breathing to slow down. High doses of codeine can lead to overdose and death. Overdose can be treated with CPR and certain medicines like naltrexone, but the most important step is to call 911.

So, be careful to use cough and cold medicines only as instructed. And if you find yourself buying large amounts of these medicines so you can get high, then seek help—you could be on your way to an addiction.

Learn more: Does your family know the risks of misusing opioids?

Find Help Near You

Use the SAMHSA Treatment Locator to find substance use or other mental health services in your area. If you are in an emergency situation, this toll-free, 24-hour hotline can help you get through this difficult time: call 1-800-273-TALK, or visit the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. We also have step by step guides on what to do to help yourself, a friend or a family member.

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