Five Loudoun County ninth-graders were sent to the hospital last week after taking a combination of Dramamine and a cold medication in a school bathroom, part of what experts said is an alarming trend in drug use, especially among younger teenagers.
The students, who attend Harmony Intermediate School in Hamilton, were found out after a teacher noticed early Friday that one of them was acting strangely in class and seemed sleepy. After a school nurse determined that the student's pulse and blood pressure were elevated, he admitted taking the medications and named two classmates who also were involved, schools spokesman Wayde B. Byard said.
School officials reviewed a surveillance video, which showed the three students entering a school bathroom. A search of the trash there turned up empty containers of the motion-sickness drug Dramamine and the cough-and-cold medication Coricidin, Byard said.
Two more students were sent to the hospital after they began exhibiting symptoms.
The two medications, available without prescription, are used in high doses as recreational drugs, said John Morgan, an emergency physician at Loudoun Hospital Center. In big doses, each can produce a drunken feeling and hallucinations, as well as dry mouth, an elevated heart rate, drowsiness and confusion. The drugs are considered safe when used as intended, but in too big a dose, either can be lethal, he said.
Morgan said the two drugs have no notable interaction, other than to exaggerate the effects of each other.
All five students were treated at Loudoun Hospital Center and have recovered, Byard said. Law enforcement officials said they broke no laws and will not face charges. But Byard said that taking any medication without supervision is against school policy and that the students probably will be disciplined.
Experts said there is little information on the abuse of over-the-counter medications among teenagers, but they said anecdotal evidence points to a growing problem.
"It's a serious trend, " said Tom Riley, spokesman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Riley said that patterns of abuse tend to be regional and that teenagers learn about medications by word of mouth and increasingly from the Internet. The medicines appeal especially to young teenagers because they can be obtained cheaply and legally in stores and home medicine cabinets, he said.
This year, for the first time, national surveys conducted by Partnership for a Drug-Free America are including questions about over-the-counter drug use, and results are expected this summer, said Steve Dnistrian, the group's executive vice president.
Dnistrian said he expects the survey to show that such abuse is still relatively rare. Studies have shown that the number of people going to the nation's emergency rooms after taking cold medicines that contain dextromethorphan, the active ingredient in Coricidin, increased from 2,100 in 2001 to 2,300 in 2002, he said.
Recreational use of over-the-counter medications also has been reported among Fairfax County students, said P.D. O'Keefe, a drug specialist with the school system.
Loudoun parents should take the incident as a wake-up call, said Janet Clarke, head of a local parents group fighting teenage drug use. She said many parents look for alcohol and illegal drug use but not for childhood abuse of household substances and medicines.
"The hurdle really is in getting parents to be receptive on receiving information on what substances and issues are really out there," she said.