SAN JOSE, Calif. - Kids call it robo-tripping or skittling - downing high doses of cough syrup or pills to get high off dextromethorphan, a cough suppressant commonly found in over-the-counter medicines.
A new study concludes that robo-tripping is sharply on the rise among teenagers - a finding worrisome to any parent who's wondered about that bottle (or two or three) of Robitussin or Coricidin in their kid's medicine cabinet.
Calls to the California Poison Control System's 24-hour hot line involving teen abuse of the ingredient ballooned by 15 times over six years, from 23 in 1999 to 375 in 2004. Although they represent a tiny fraction of all calls made to the hot line - fewer than two in 1,000 - the uptick worries Ilene Anderson, a senior toxicologist for the system and senior author of the study.
"We have a product that causes you to get high, that's inexpensive, that's readily available, and there's a false perception that because it's over the counter, it's safe," Anderson said. "It lacks the stigma of cocaine or heroin, and it's easy to fool your parents about it."
The study's results echo those of national studies released in recent years by the federal government. The rise of robo-tripping appears to coincide with the decline in popularity of LSD, the club drug Ecstasy, and GHB, known as the date rape drug.
In large doses, dextromethorphan can cause euphoria and hallucinations, part of the "high" teens describe on Internet sites promoting the drug known as DXM, CCC, Triple C, Skittles and Robo. It also can result in seizures, vomiting, dangerous spikes in blood pressure or body temperature and psychosis, and fatal overdoses have been reported.
The drug is particularly dangerous when used along with antidepressants, such as Prozac or Zoloft, or ecstasy, Anderson said. Teens who abuse cold medications containing acetaminophen, or Tylenol, risk permanent liver damage.
Anderson blamed part of the increase on Internet sites that promote abuse of the drug and offer detailed information on how many pills or swigs are needed to get high. A pure powder form of dextromethorphan, used by pharmaceutical manufacturers and researchers, easily can be purchased online. Rap songs, such as Three 6 Mafia's "Sippin' On Some Syrup," also have popularized robo-tripping. The TV cartoon "South Park" has featured a robo-tripping story line.
"It's no longer just word of mouth," Anderson said.
The study was carried out by researchers at the University of California-San Francisco's school of pharmacy, which operates the poison control hot line. They found that nearly three-quarters of all calls regarding dextromethorphan involved youths aged 9 to 17, with most cases of frequent abuse in 15- and 16-year-olds.
The most-abused medication in this age group was Coricidin HPB Cough & Cold Tablets, which contain a relatively high dose of the cough suppressant. Those brightly colored pills have garnered the street name Skittles for the candy they resemble. The next most popular were Robitussin products containing the cough suppressant - hence the street name Robo.