Jan. 9, 2004 -- 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.
Sometimes they laughed about not getting caught. Helgeson said he drag-raced a police car, and thought it was funny the officers couldn't tell he was high when they pulled him over. "They gave me a Breathalyzer. I hadn't been drinking. I didn't have any drugs on me.
So they didn't know," he said.
Helgeson was the oldest among the group of young people who talked with ABCNEWS about their experiences. As the younger kids continued to laugh about their experiences, we noticed that Helgeson seemed sort of separate from them.
Helgeson says it's still fun when he takes Coricidin, but he says it's wrecked his life.
His mom has to drive him places because he'll lose his license if he gets another ticket. He dropped out of school and now lives at home, spending most of his time playing his guitar or just sitting.
"Living in the household with Jeff the past few years has been like living with somebody who's sick and they never get well," said his mom, Merrilly Helgeson.
Jeff Helgeson has a twin brother, John, a junior at the University of Wisconsin, whose life is good. His mom says Jeff "always has a reminder right in front of him of where he would be right now if he were not doing Coricidin."
And Jeff doesn't seem happy with himself. "My brain has gone and I'm just wasted. It took all my friends away from me. I threw my life away." Yet he keeps using.
Abuse on the Rise
Failing grades or a trip to the hospital is sometimes what it takes to alert kids and their parents to the danger. Doctors say they're seeing more and more kids in emergency rooms who've taken too much Coricidin.
Over the last three years, there's been approximately a 300 percent increase in calls to poison control centers about dextramethorphan, said Dr. Edward Boyer, an emergency room physician in Massachusetts.
Boyer says the kids who come in to the emergency room are agitated, difficult to control, sweating and unresponsive when you try to speak to them.
Molly and Ashley had a recent close call.
They told Ashley's mom they were going to bed. Instead they took Coricidin, sneaked out of their house, and went to a party where they took more Coricidin.
"My fingers were so numb that I couldn't open the package. So me and Molly were literally trying to rip the package open with our teeth," Ashley said.
They went to a boy's house where Ashley may have had sex, but she doesn't know.
"He took me in a bedroom and I guess he tried to have sex with me. … He was on top of me. But I fell asleep."
Later, a hospital test revealed she and the boy had not had sex. She and Molly did get home and later went to sleep. But by morning, they were still very high. The Coricidin high can last a day. Ashley's mom called the poison control center and was told to get the girls to the hospital.
Sometimes Deadly Consequences
At least five people have died after taking Coricidin, but even death doesn't seem to scare the kids. Jason had heard about a boy who died, but said he knows that the boy took the type of Coricidin that contains acetaminophen. And he knows not to take that type. "It tends to cause you to die," he said.
He's right, because acetaminophen can cause liver damage or death when taken in large doses.
Boyer said, "If you talk to kids, they know they should take the stuff that doesn't have acetaminophen in it."
It's hard to believe the kids know which type of medicine is going to hurt them less.
But Boyer says he believes they do, and he says they can get a lot of information from an online drug encyclopedia called Erowid. While Erowid warns that high doses of acetaminophen can be fatal, the Web site appears to have been written by drug users. They describe first-time experiences, and suggest dosages — and in the case of Coricidin, warn of its dangers.
In fact, you can get more information from these than you get from the government's drug-abuse Web site, Boyer said. "If I need information on a drug of abuse, I go to this Web site," he said.
Easy Access Makes Drug a Greater Threat
Some parents say Coricidin, because it's so accessible, is worse than other drugs. They want it taken off store shelves.
But the company that makes Coricidin, Schering-Plough HealthCare Products, said removing it from the shelves would deny cold sufferers access to a helpful medication.
"We want to minimize abuse by warning people and changing the package so it's harder to shoplift, but Coricidin HBP is a valuable cold medicine, the safest and most effective product for patients with high blood pressure," the company said in a statement.
It also said putting it behind the counter would deprive those who need it.
Wal-Mart's policy is to sell it only to customers 18 or older, and the chain limits the number of boxes people can buy to three.
Still, kids who want to abuse the medicine can still find it in stores or buy it over the Internet. Ultimately, making the decision not to abuse the medicine will be up to the kids.
Ashley said it's difficult to stop taking it once you get started. "It's addictive," she said. "here's some ingredient in those pills that makes you want to take it again no matter what."
That's not correct. Dextromethorphan is not physically addictive. Ashley and Molly have now stopped taking it. People do quit. Jason has been clean since June, and Kevin for almost a year. But Jeff Helgeson still uses.
"I know that the right answer is for me to never do it again. Or drugs in general," he said. "But once you've been down that road, it's really difficult to get on a different path and stay on that path."
Poison Control Information1-800-222-1222 is the 24-hour emergency number to call to find a poison control center your area. Poison control centers have additional information concerning abuse and misuse of cold medicines containing dextromethorphan.