Teens Using Cold Medicine to Get High

Parents have their hands full trying to keep kids away from alcohol, smoking and drugs. Now there's yet another substance that teens are using to get high — legally. They're taking big doses of ordinary cold medicine.

Watch John Stossel's full report on kids abusing Coricidin tonight on 20/20.

A group of kids who spoke to ABCNEWS said they were using Coricidin HBP Cough and Cold Pills to get stoned. The ingredient that gives kids a high is dextromethorphan, or DXM. It suppresses coughs safely, but in large amounts it produces a chemical imbalance in the brain that allows the kids to get high.

Click here for information on your local poison control center.

Dextromethorphan is in more than 100 cold medicines, not just Coricidin, but one type of Coricidin has the particular cocktail of ingredients that the kids prefer. This week, the American Association of Poison Control reported teen abuse of these types of over-the-counter cold medications has doubled in the last four years.

‘It Tastes Just Like Candy’

Molly, 17, described how taking a large dose of the pills made her feel, "You turn your head and everything went in slow motion. It was like you were in The Matrix or something."

The abuse of Coricidin is so appealing, kids say, because it's easy to get, it's legal, and parents and teachers usually don't have any idea they're taking it.

"As far as drugs go, you don't need to know a dealer, you know. If you can find a Walgreen's or a grocery store, you're set," said Jeff Helgeson, a 20-year-old from Minneapolis. Helgeson says he's been getting high on Coricidin for four years.

Some kids call the habit "skittling," because the pills look like the popular candy Skittles. "It's just like pot, except it's better and it tastes just like candy and your parents won't know if you get high cause your eyes won't be red," said Ashley, 16.

Jason, a 15-year-old from Seattle, said he liked the feeling so much he took the pills every day for five months. Another teen, Kevin, said he took Coricidin for a year and a half.

Parents, Teachers Often Unaware of Abuse

When parents see that their kids have cold pills, they don't think twice. It's just cold medicine, after all; it seems innocent enough.

School principal Judi Hanson says she's finding that Coricidin is becoming kids' drug of choice. It's easier to conceal. There's no smell, there's no dealing with a dealer. It makes it hard to detect.

But Jason's father, Pat, noticed his son seemed stoned when he came home with friends and he confronted him. Jason finally admitted to abusing the medicine. Like many parents, Pat didn't know kids could get high on cold pills.

Often the kids don't even buy the Coricidin — they steal it. Helgeson said he stole it. "I'd wear my coat in there or stuff it in my underwear."

The shoplifting has led some stores to move that type of Coricidin behind the counter. James Holm, a pharmacist at a Hopkins, Minn., store, said they had no choice.

"These kids just seem to find it, zero in on it, and believe me, if you have it on the shelf, it's going to be gone," he said. "They'll steal it right out from underneath your nose. … They just grab it and go."

As the kids talked about getting stoned, there was a lot of laughter, even when they talked about accidents and injuries they suffered while taking the pills. Helgeson laughed as he talked about breaking his elbow and ankle while snowboarding and skateboarding when he was high on Coricidin.

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