The short answer is: we don’t know if it’s possible to get addicted to DXM or not.
Studies indicate that DXM – or Dextramethorphan – probably isn’t addictive, but some users report cravings for the drug. Its availability in over 120 over-the-counter cold medications makes DXM easy to abuse, especially for teenagers who perceive it as a low-risk high. Still, if you are having a hard time staying away from DXM and keep going back to it even though you try to quit…you may need some professional help to stop DXM use for good. Our detailed GUIDE on Dextromethorphan Addiction Treatment Programs and Help outlines the basics of what you need to know before you seek help.
But what are the side effects of DXM abuse? What does DXM do inside the body, and is it dangerous? We examine these questions in more detail here.
DXM chemistry and use
DXM, or dextromethorphan, is a cough-suppressant found in over-the-counter cold medications. DXM can be used alone to control cough, or in combination with other medications such as painkillers, antihistamines, decongestants, and expectorants. When taken as directed, DXM rarely has any side effects.
However, when taken in large quantities, DXM causes a heightened sense of perceptual awareness, altered perception of time, and visual hallucinations. DXM intoxication usually causes hyper-excitability, lethargy, slurred speech, sweating, and hypertension. One of the dangers of using DXM to get high is in the side effects from overdoses of other active ingredients in OTC medications.
- Acetaminophen can cause liver damage.
- Antihistamines can result in central nervous system and cardiovascular toxicity.
- Pseudoephedrine increases blood pressure.
What does DXM do in the body?
Dextromethorphan is related to opiate medications, and works by suppressing the coughing reflex in the brain. Because DXM works directly on the brain and affects the central nervous system, large amounts of the drug can cause hallucinations and intoxication. Large doses of the drug can cause users to go into a dissociative or “out of body” state.
Because of the other ingredients frequently packaged with DXM in OTC medication, it’s usually difficult to overdose on cough medication combination drugs. Usually, DXM users will vomit and be unable to absorb a lethal dose of the drug. The risk of overdose is much higher with powdered dextromethorphan, which allows users to take a much larger dose all at once. Luckily, this more dangerous form of DXM is not easily available.
How do you get addicted to DXM?
Unfortunately, researchers just don’t know. While studies have shown that the dextromethorphan medication has low addictive potential, some abusers have reporting feeling strong cravings for the drug after taking it. However, unlike many addictive drugs, there are not withdrawal symptoms associated with DXM after users quit. On the other hand, if you’re asking yourself, “Can I get addicted to NyQuil?” or “Can I get addicted to Benadryl?”, some experts think that some types of over the counter drug addiction is possible.
Who uses DXM?
DXM is mostly abused by minors because of its easy availability compared to other drugs and alcohol. The American Association of Poison Control Centers tracks the number of calls it receives regarding DXM abuse, and they usually log a majority of calls from teenagers (over 60%). Because of the potential for abuse, some pharmacy chains do not allow minors to buy medications containing the drug, or put a cap on how much can be purchased by any customer at one time.
Signs of DXM abuse
Because DXM use is so prevalent among teenagers, it’s important for parents to keep an eye out for potential abuse (and to know street names for DXM). Parents should inventory their medicine cabinets, kitchen cabinets, and anywhere else that they store medications. Signs of DXM abuse may include:
- flushed face
- poor coordination and movements
- poor balance
- slow comprehension
- slow response time
- slurred speech
What should you do if you have a DXM problem?
Using medications that contain DXM to get high is not safe. If you are worried about abusing a medication you currently need to take, talk to your doctor. A family doctor will be able to refer you to someone who can assess your drug use. And there’s nothing to be afraid of – the consequences for being honest are often more beneficial than the risk of keeping DXM use hidden.
Questions about DXM
Please leave us any other questions about cough medications, DXM or over the counter medication abuse. We will be happy to answer your questions or refer you to someone who can.