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Can Minors Purchase Cough Syrups?

Bottle of cough syrup being poured into a spoon.  

Cough and cold medicines are commonplace in America households and are used by all ages. When taken in the recommended dose, these medicines are effective and pose no serious side effects. However, when taken in larger amounts or more frequently than directed, they become potentially harmful.

Two commonly misused cough medicines include Dextromethorphan (DXM) cough syrups and Promethazine-codeine cough syrups. DXM, a non-narcotic cough suppressant, can produce a high or dissociation (i.e. an out-of-body sensation) when ingested in large amounts. In fact, the effects of DXM abuse have been compared to those of highly addictive hallucinogenic drugs such as PCP and ketamine. Codeine is an opioid drug that, when taken in higher than recommended doses, also produces a high and can be very addictive.

Since the 1950s, DXM has gradually replaced codeine as the most widely used cough suppressant in the United States. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) December 2016 Monitoring the Future survey, approximately one in thirty teens admit to drinking OTC cough syrup to get high. In response to this trend, many states have implemented laws prohibiting the sale of cough syrups to minors.

Why Restrict Minors from Purchasing Cough Syrup?

Because cough syrups are accessible and affordable, teens can easily obtain and misuse these substances. When cough syrups are taken in excess, they have the potential to become habit-forming and addictive. Teens may drink cough syrups containing DXM to get high, a practice referred to as “robotripping,” “dexing” or “skittling.”  Another dangerous trend among teens is mixing cough syrups containing codeine with soda and hard candy. This mixture is referred to as “sizzurp” or “purple drank.”

Unfortunately, celebrities often glamorize recreational misuse of cough medicines. This glamorization can encourage minors to experiment with cough syrup. The recreational use of cough syrups is considered a gateway into harder, more dangerous substances. Therefore, limiting the occurrence of recreational use may be key in decreasing addiction rates to life-threatening drugs. Many states have passed laws that restrict teens’ access to cough syrup while still making them available for Americans who use them responsibly.

There are several stages to a DXM high, depending on the amount ingested. Effects can range from a mild high or buzz to dissociation, hallucinations, paranoia and aggression. Many cough syrups that contain DXM contain additional ingredients such as decongestants, pain relievers, and antihistamines. Consuming high doses of these substances along with DXM can cause a variety of health problems including high blood pressure, liver damage and heart problems.

States That Restrict Minors from Purchasing Cough Syrups

In 2012, California became the first state to adopt laws prohibiting the sale of DXM-containing medicines to minors. States taking similar actions include: New York, Arizona, Louisiana, Virginia, Colorado, Tennessee, Kentucky, Texas, Washington, New Jersey, Florida, Alaska, Delaware, Nevada and Oregon. Some of these laws include:

  • California cough syrup laws: On January 1, 2012, California became the first state to ban the sale of cough syrups containing DXM to minors. The state of California also prohibits the possession of OTC codeine without a valid prescription.
  • Texas cough syrup laws: On May 17, 2019, the Texas Governor signed a law preventing any minor under the age of 18 from purchasing OTC drugs containing DXM. Texas is the 19th state to pass this law.
  • Colorado cough syrup laws: On May 11, 2018, Colorado became the 16th state to pass an age 18 sales law on DXM-containing cough syrups.
  • Florida cough syrup laws: On January 1, 2017, Florida prohibited minors from purchasing OTC cough syrups containing DXM. Individuals who appear to be younger than 25 years old are now required to present their ID to purchase these cough medicines.

Cough syrup laws such as these help prevent minors from misusing cough syrup. They have also increased parental and general awareness of this problem.

If you have a teen that is misusing cough syrup or any other substance, Next Generation Village can help. Please contact us today for more information.

Medical Disclaimer: Next Generation Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.


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