Misty Fetko, a mother of two teenagers, got up early to walk the dog before she roused her boys from bed one summer day in 2003. Her eldest, Carl, a gifted guitar player and award-winning artist at his Ohio high school, never woke up.
"His friends told me his smile made their day," Fetko said of her 18-year-old, who had just been accepted to Memphis College of Art.
In the past, she had found empty bottles of Robitussin in their suburban New Albany home, but she had no idea Carl had a 2½ year drug habit. Fetko's skills as an emergency room nurse were of no use when she entered Carl's bedroom and administered CPR. She discovered he had died in his sleep of an accidental overdose of the cough syrup Robitussin.
"There were no other signs," said Fetko, who since then has helped others as a spokeswoman for the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. "I think Carl and his friends were under the impression that it was harmless because it was not illegal. There is a false sense of security, and it's so subtle: no smell, no needles, no drug dealers, you don't need a lot of money to buy it and you can use it after mom and dad go to bed."
"Robotripping" -- getting a hallucinogenic high with cold and cough medicines like Robitussin -- has increased 10-fold since 1999, according to a California Poison Control Center study released this week. The trend is nationwide, according to the six-year study on over-the-counter drug use, published in the December issue of Archive Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.
In the three years since Carl's death, which was reported by ABC News, use among even younger teens has increased 15-fold, according to the study. An estimated 75.4 percent of all users were between the ages of 9 and 17.
From California to Massachusetts, poison control centers answer more calls for near-fatal overdoses among teenagers, and many cases go unreported. This week, in El Dorado, Calif., seven high school students were rushed to the emergency room after swallowing five to eight tablets each of the cold remedy Coricidin.
At Barnstable High School in Massachusetts in September, a 14-year-old began vomiting through her mouth and nose and her brown eyes turned black after she took up to 10 pills of Coricidin HBP Cough and Cold -- a medicine students call "Triple C," "skittles" or "Dex," according to a report in the Cape Cod Times.
The active ingredient that killed Fetko's son was dextromethorphan, or DXM, which causes out-of-body sensations and hallucinations. An earlier cough syrup, Romilar, was taken off the market in 1973 after abuses were discovered. The trend re-emerged in the late 1990s. Robotripping takes its name from Robitussin, the second most-abused cold medicine after Coricidin.
Users can suffer irregular heart beat, high blood pressure and seizures, as well as overdosing and death.
"Younger kids are abusing all drugs, some as young as 7 and 8," said Alfred Aleguas, clinical manager for the Regional Center for Poison Control and Prevention Serving Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Last year, the center received 45 phone calls involving the intentional abuse or misuse of cold medicines among 11- to 17-year-olds.
Even as the popularity of illegal drugs like Ecstasy, LSD and the date rape drug GHB have dropped, abuse of over-the-counter medicines such as Coricidin pills, Robitussin syrup and other easy-to-buy products are on the rise, according to the Partnership for Drug-Free America.