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In the fight against drug abuse, parents use Internet against Internet

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Coricidin HBP, one of the most commonly abused cough and cold medicines by teenagers. (Photo by Mirela Iverac/CNS)

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Robitussin, one of the most commonly abused cough and cold medicines by teenagers. (Photo by Mirela Iverac/CNS)

Laura Day, a single mother in Pearl, Miss., found out that her daughter was using cough medicine to get high when she came home from work in 2006 to a message informing her that the teenager was in an emergency room. Her daughter, Hollie, had swallowed 16 pills of Coricidin and passed out at a friend’s house.

“I was shocked when I found out,” said Day, who later started Ziggy’s Blogs about her experiences.

Day considered herself to be informed on teenage trends and was astonished when she realized she did not know that, like many other teens, Hollie used cough and cold medicine to get high, and that it was so easily accessible.

Known as Triple C, Skittles, Red Devils and Robo, Coricidin and more than 140 over-the-counter cough and cold remedies that contain dextromethorphan, or DXM, remain popular among teenagers.

After being kept for observation for about five hours in the hospital, Hollie was released and Day decided to place her in a treatment facility, because she had previously used other substances such as marijuana and prescription pills. Day, however, also decided to reach out to other parents warning them about the dangers their teenagers are exposed to.

And just as the Internet has facilitated the abuse of cough and cold medicine among teenagers, Day and other parents are using the same tool to fight back and spread their own message.

“Let’s put something on the Internet for parents to go to,” said Becky Dyer, explaining why she became a part of a national campaign called “Five Moms: Stopping Cough Medicine Abuse.”

Dyer, 35, a deputy sheriff from Hutchinson, Kan., is an officer in the anti-drug program D.A.R.E. She was invited to join the campaign in May 2007 by the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, a trade organization that represents various manufacturers of cough and cold medicines. The association supports bans on sales of the medicines to minors.

The main idea behind the campaign is to encourage each mother who visits the site to tell five other mothers about the abuse of these over-the-counter medications, thus spreading the message across the country. The message has reached around 24 million parents, according to the campaign’s Web site.

Her work on the campaign has been “an unbelievable experience,” said Dyer.

Educating parents about the dangers lurking both on the Internet and in their homes has invigorated her. She added that most parents were not aware of how common cough and cold medicine abuse is among teenagers, or what the teens could find out about it on the Internet.

Last year an estimated 2.5 million teens abused over-the-counter cough and cold medicine, according to Candice Besson, spokeswoman for the Partnership for a Drug-Free America.

“They are easy to find, cheap to buy and can cause a significant high,” said Daniel Dickerson, assistant research psychiatrist at UCLA. At the recommended dosage for treating colds, DXM is safe in the 15-30 milligram doses. But in large doses (100 milligrams or more), it can cause hallucinations, and can also cause high fever, seizures and other reactions.

Typing in “DXM trip” or “robotripping” on YouTube produces numerous videos of teens and young adults readily displaying what they claim are the effects of DXM. The Five Moms campaign has responded in kind, with a video on YouTube. It features teenage voices that talk about the use of cough medicine, and ends with a warning to parents, directing them to the Five Moms Web site.

The campaign fights against Web sites like the ones Misty Fetko says her son turned to for information. When he wanted to find out how to get high by using cough medicine, what the right dosage was and with what substances to mix it with, Carl looked online, said Fetko, 48, a registered nurse from New Albany, Ohio. She saw teenagers come to the emergency room after overdosing with cough medicine. But nothing had prepared Fetko to find Carl dead in his room on July 16, 2003, two days before he was supposed to leave for Memphis College of Art.

Carl died as a consequence of mixing drugs: Fentanyl (a prescription narcotic), marijuana and DXM.

“I thought I faced the danger of street drugs, not cough medicine,” Fetko said.

Fetko first reached out to her local community to warn about the dangers of cough and cold medicine, and in 2006 she agreed to share her story on the Partnership for a Drug-Free America’s Web site. Since then she has been fielding numerous e-mails from parents who have asked for help and advice in dealing with teenagers who abuse cough medicines.

“Other parents are unaware as I was unaware,” said Fetko.

Despite restrictions put in place to limit the availability of DXM to teens around the country, they still manage to get hold of cough medicines with the ingredient. A source can be an older friend, current supplies at home or shoplifting.

“We stole them,” said Hollie Day, now 19, describing how she and her friend acquired the boxes of Coricidin from a Wal-Mart before her trip to the emergency room in 2006.

After swallowing 16 pills, Hollie said that within a few hours she felt like her insides were on fire. She fainted and was rushed to a hospital by her grandmother.

On her blog, Hollie’s mother writes about other dangerous teen trends like the abuse of inhalants, called “huffing,” or pooling pills from medicine cabinets at “pharming’’ parties. Day said most parents who have communicated with her through the blog were shocked and unaware of these trends. She says she wants to help other parents become aware of how close their teens are to potential dangers.

“Perhaps a teen can’t easily get the cough and cold medicines at stores,” Day said, “but they are still in medicine cabinets at home.”

E-mail: mi2225@columbia.edu