[av_dropcap1]I[/av_dropcap1]n the days before he allegedly stabbed his grandmother, Dylan Campbell thought he was a god. He also believed that someone was trying to hurt his family.
He’d get down on all fours and rock. He started hyperventilating. He was hallucinating. His face wore a blank look, according to his aunt Noreen Carros, who lives with the 17-year-old, soon-to-be high school senior.
His bizarre behavior was so worrisome that his family took him to a hospital emergency room, where he was put under a 48-hour observation, Carros said.
She said she had no idea what happened to her grand-nephew, until he confided in her. Now she wants to warn other people about what medical and drug abuse professionals call a cheap, legal, accessible and dangerous high.
And it’s probably in your bathroom right now.
The Bristol Township teen was abusing cough medications, and had been for months, Carros said. The family informed Bristol Township police that he was possibly abusing it the night he allegedly stabbed his grandmother, who suffered minor wounds.
While not as popular as a decade ago, cough syrup and cold tablets continue to be abused by teens looking for a cheap — and some may believe — safer high, according to medical experts.
A 2011 national survey found that one in 10 U.S. teens has used cough or cold medication to get high, making it more popular than cocaine, Ecstasy, LSD and methamphetamine among teens, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.
Cough medications ranked fifth among 14 legal and illegal drugs that high school seniors admitted to abusing in the past year in a 2012 University of Michigan study. Overall, fewer than 6 percent of the seniors admitted abusing cough medications compared with marijuana/hashish (36 percent) and synthetic marijuana (11 percent), according to the study.
Many over-the-counter cough syrups contain the active ingredient dextromethorphan — also called DXM — a cough suppressant that has a dissociative anesthetic property, meaning in large doses it can alter an individual’s perceptions and create a feeling of detachment from their surroundings.
When taken in doses beyond what is recommended, DXM produces a euphoric high and hallucinations, according to medical literature. People taking high doses experience different worlds and contact with “superior” beings, some of the literature states.
In extremely high doses, the drug can cause aggression, violence and impulsivity and aggravate underlying mental health problems, drug abuse experts said.
While most chain drug stores frequently keep commercial cold and cough medicines containing DXM behind the counter, most major retailers don’t, said Katherine Aldridge, a drug abuse therapist at TODAY Inc. in Middletown, a substance abuse treatment center for teens.
Signs of cough syrup abuse can be tough to spot because the signs can be confused with other typical teenage behavior or common illnesses, Aldridge said. Aside from irritability, there are no physical signs of withdrawal when a person stops consuming the medication.
“They have to be under the influence for you to notice anything,” she added.
Individuals using DXM-based cough medication to get high often appear to be mildly to moderately intoxicated. But if high doses are taken, a person can hallucinate and experience sensations of physical distortion similar to what they might experience if ingesting PCP, better known as angel dust, Aldridge said.
With prescription-only codeine-based cough medications, the codeine attaches to the same cell receptors in the brain that heroin targets, medical experts say. Consuming more than the daily recommended therapeutic dose of promethazine-codeine cough syrup can produce euphoria similar to that produced by other opioid drugs, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
How much cough medication can induce hallucinations varies, but similar to alcohol intoxication, smaller, thinner people with an empty stomach tend to feel the effects faster, often within 20 minutes to a half hour, Aldridge said. The euphoric effects can last three or four hours.
To kill the medicine taste, teens will mix a candy-flavored cough syrup cocktail called “Sizzurp.”
The attraction for teens is a combination of factors including it’s legal, affordable and doesn’t require teens to deal with unsavory characters, Aldridge said.
“It’s cough medicine for God’s sake. It’s nothing I would get arrested for,” Aldridge said. “Schools don’t call police for a bottle of cough medicine in the backpack.”
Individuals can quickly develop a tolerance to both DXM and codeine cough syrups so the more they use it, the more they require higher doses to generate the same high they once got. Like other dissociative drugs, cough medications are not considered to be physically addictive like heroin or cocaine, but when abused, it can cause increased dopamine in the brain leading to psychological addiction, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
“It does have a strong psychological aspect to it often with a strong urge to use,” added David Fialko, a drug prevention specialist with the Council of Southeastern Pennsylvania.
Other health dangers associated with cough medication abuse include impaired motor function, numbness, nausea or vomiting, increased heart rate and blood pressure and, at high doses, extreme agitation, increased body temperature, and a buildup of excess acid in body fluids.
High doses of acetaminophen, a pain reliever commonly found in DXM-based medications, can cause liver damage, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. With codeine-based medications, there is a high risk of a fatal overdose, the NIDA said.
If someone consumes a lot of cough medication containing DXM, there is a good chance they’ll pass out, said Dr. William Lorman, vice president for clinical services at Livengrin, a Bensalem substance abuse treatment center. Some teens and young adults will experience with cough medications the “buzz,” but don’t develop a high tolerance level, he added.
Dylan Campbell told his aunt that he had been abusing cough medications for three months before the alleged stabbing, Carros said. He confessed to drinking as much as a bottle a day of over-the-counter cough medication, as well as taking it in tablet form, she said.
Dylan said that he believed the cough syrup expanded his mind and helped him concentrate better, Carros said. The family had no clue anything was wrong until he was rushed to the hospital, she added.
The night of the alleged attack on his grandmother, she said, family camped out in the living room to watch Dylan, who was still behaving like he was in a trance, Carros said.
“He was not there whatsoever,” she added.
Dylan is scheduled to appear in court for a preliminary hearing on charges of aggravated and simple assault and related offenses in October, according to online court records. While he was initially incarcerated in lieu of 10 percent of $15,000 bail, he was released July 11 after his bail was changed to unsecured, according to court records.
Carros said Dylan is now in a residential drug treatment center.
“I’ve never encountered anything like this. People need to be aware of it. It’s something most people have in their medicine cabinets,” she added. “It’s horrible. He has always been a really good kid.”