msnbc.com news services
updated 1/9/2008 9:07:22 PM ET 2008-01-10T02:07:22

About 3.1 million people between the ages of 12 to 25 — or about 5 percent of the age group — have used over-the-counter cough and cold medicine to get high, a U.S. government survey found.

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In large doses, cough syrups and cold pills can be used to induce hallucinations, “out-of-body” experiences or other effects, officials said.

This type of abuse has been known for years, but the 2006 survey, conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration or SAMHSA, sets out the best numbers to date quantifying the problem, officials said.

In recent years, the Drug Enforcement Administration has cited the rising popularity of cough syrup cocktails — prescription codeine-laced cold medicine mixed with soda or sports drinks. With names like "Syrup," "Purple Drank" and "Lean," these concoctions first gained fame in Southern rap circles. As the trend spread to fans, teens started using the more readily available over-the-counter versions of cough suppressants.

Today's report, based on interviews with almost 45,000 people ages 12 to 25, provides a snapshot but don't show whether this type of drug abuse is rising, falling or staying the same.

“The survey tells me that parents need to be very concerned about the over-the-counter medicines that they have in their medicine cabinet,” Dr. H. Westley Clark, director of SAMHSA’s Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, said in a telephone interview.

“And young adults need to be concerned about the effects that over-the-counter cold medications and cough medications have on their functioning.”

The abuse was highest among whites — at levels three times that of blacks. Overall, the level of abuse of these drugs is comparable to levels of use of LSD, methamphetamine or the drug ecstasy in this age group, the agency said. Among those ages 12 to 17, abuse of these drugs was most common among girls, while it shifted to young men among those 18 to 25. Nearly 82 percent also had used marijuana, the agency said.

Among those surveyed who said they had misused one of these cough and cold medications in the past year, about 30 percent said they used a NyQuil brand product, 18 percent used a Coricidin product and 18 percent used a Robitussin product.

The cough suppressant DXM is found in more than 140 cough and cold medications available without a prescription. When taken in large amounts, DXM can cause disorientation, blurred vision, slurred speech and vomiting.

"While increasing attention has been paid to the public health risk of prescription drug abuse, we also need to be aware of the growing dangers of misuse of over-the-counter cough and cold medications, especially among young people," said Terry Cline, the agency's administrator.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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