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What are cough and cold medicines?
Millions of Americans take cough and cold medicines each year to help with symptoms of colds. When taken as instructed, these medicines can be safe and effective. They become harmful when taken in a way or dose other than directed on the package.
Several cough and cold medicines contain ingredients that are psychoactive (mind-altering) when taken in higher-than-recommended dosages, and some people misuse them. These products also contain other ingredients that can add to the risks. Many of these medicines are bought “over the counter” (OTC), meaning you do not need a prescription to have them.
Two commonly misused cough and cold medicines are:
- Dextromethorphan (DXM) cough syrup, tablets, and gel capsules. These OTC cough medicines are safe for stopping coughs during a cold if you take them as directed. Taking more than the recommended amount can produce a "high" and sometimes dissociative effects (like you are detached from your body).
- Promethazine-codeine cough syrup. These prescription medications contain an opioid drug called codeine, which stops coughs, but when taken in higher doses produces a "buzz" or "high."
Read more about prescription drugs and what happens to the brain and body when someone misuses them.
How Cough and Cold Medicines Are Misused
Cough and cold medicines are usually sold in liquid syrup, capsule, or pill form. They may also come in a powder. Drinking promethazine-codeine cough syrup mixed with soda (a combination called "lean" or "sizzurp") was referenced frequently in some popular music beginning in the late 1990s and has become increasingly popular among youth in several areas of the country.
Young people are often more likely to misuse cough and cold medicines containing DXM than some other drugs because these medicines can be purchased without a prescription.