Short and to the point: the dangers of dextromethorphan

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. George Jones
  • 17th Medical Operations Squadron Commander
Let's talk dextromethorphan: good medication used to manage a cough, easily purchased from most retail stores. It comes from the chemical family that includes codeine and morphine.

Dextromethorphan works by blocking the cough center in the brain, but does not act on other parts of the brain like its cousins, so don't expect a "morphine-like" effect. Sorry.

Here is the part where the wise and experienced are thinking, maybe not like morphine, but will it get you "out there?" Yes, it will. When used as directed on the package, it will help a mild, or even a bit worse, cough from a cold, allergies or your suitemates' dusting habits. When used in large doses, it antagonizes the N-methyl-d-aspartate receptor binding at the calcium cation channel, limiting the modulation of excitatory neurotransmissions and possibly resulting in dissociative experiences. Thought you would like to know how it might get you "out there."

Whoops, now everyone knows you might get "high" off cough medication. No problem, right? If it is over the counter, "legal," you can't get in trouble. You can buy it in the store, the Base Exchange even. It is not like those street drugs, bought in an alley. A big company makes it and the federal government makes sure it's properly made and labeled. Well, there is the rub...not using it as labeled is "abuse" no matter who made the drug or where it was bought.

Our own legal expert, Maj. Mark Stoup, lays it out like this: "Drug abuse includes any wrongful use of a controlled substance such as prescription medication and illegal drugs and in some cases abuse of over the counter medication. The Air Force defines drug use for this purpose as any abuse of illegal drugs or prescription medication or abuse of any substance other than alcohol for the purpose of altering one's mood or function. This means, military members who abuse over the counter medication are also subjected to harsh consequences, such as discharge from the military. Drug abuse is incompatible with military service."

It's not cocaine or morphine, so no one will know! Sorry again. Abusing dextromethorphan is addictive. So, you will need more and more and, if not caught before, when you get the dose high enough, you can't control what happens. You will have a rapid heart beat, high blood pressure, vomiting, loss of muscle coordination to include a "drunken-type" walk and uncontrollable giggling or laughing will occur and then you're busted.

By the way, supervisors, commanders, and most of all wingmen, should look for those signs and get the person help. Some other possible signs include development of cravings, agitation for no apparent reason, sweating and loss of the ability to simply think.

Dextromethorphan is usually part of a cold treatment combination product, so the effects of overdosing on those drugs can be seen. For example, chlorpheniramine, a runny nose drug, can produce delirium, dry eyes and mouth to the point of pain, blurred vision, increased heart rate and flushed skin. It can also block the ability to urinate or have a bowel movement...that can get real uncomfortable.

Is dextromethorphan abused? Yep, it is. Can it hurt you? Yep, it can. Can you get discharged? Yep, you can. Should you risk it for the "out there" part? Up to you... just think about it before you try it, because later on, you might loose the ability to think clear enough.