What is Dextromethorphan?

Malcolm Tatum

Also known as DXM or DM, dextromethorphan is a medication with antitussive properties. The medication is used in a number of over the counter products, notably cough medicines and various cold remedies. Considered safe when used in small doses, the drug in excessive amounts can cause undesirable effects, such as disorientation and hallucinations.

Coughing severity can be relieved with dextromethorphan.
Coughing severity can be relieved with dextromethorphan.

When used in therapeutic doses, this drug has the ability to alleviate the pain often associated with coughing due to colds and general congestion. The drug functions differently than other cough medications in that it primarily acts on brain function, effectively increasing the body’s threshold for coughing without directly acting on the respiratory track. The duration of effectiveness will vary, depending on the exact nature of the preparation. When dextromethorphan hydrobromide is used, the effects can last anywhere from three to eight hours. With dextromethorphan polistirex, the duration is usually in the ten to twelve hour range.

Blurred vision is one side effect associated with Dextromethorphan.
Blurred vision is one side effect associated with Dextromethorphan.

There are a number of reported dextromethorphan effects that indicate that some individuals should not use the medication. In some cases, decreasing the dosage will help to moderate the side effects. Some nausea and fever may develop, although people suffering with a cold may already have these side effects and notice little to no increase while taking the drug.

Other side effects include blurred vision, sweating, nervousness, and the development of diarrhea. While dextromethorphan does not normally cause drowsiness, some people have reported becoming very sleepy while taking any over the counter product containing this compound. There is also some chance of dizziness as well as vomiting.

In general, children should not be given any product containing dextromethorphan, due to the histamine effect of the drug. Physicians also tend to discourage the taking of any medicine containing the compound during pregnancy. People with certain allergies should also refrain from using any product using this type of medication unless specifically recommended by a physician. Anyone taking monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) should also refrain from using this drug in any form.

For the most part, the benefits of dextromethorphan when taken in recommended doses will outweigh any side effects. The sense of congestion and the severity of coughing normally decrease within forty-five minutes of taking the medicine. Continuing to take the cough or cold product according to package instructions will often make it possible to ride out the cold until the immune system can subdue the symptoms and healing takes place.

However, dextromethorphan abuse has been reported from time to time since the creation of this compound in 1958. Much of the abuse has to do with the hallucinogenic properties that can be triggered if the drug is consumed in excessive amounts. Because it is possible to become emotionally dependent on the drug after repeated abuse as well as exacerbate severe side effects, the drug should only be taken as recommended.

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Discussion Comments


This ingredient in OTC cough syrup can cause marked personality changes in some individuals - extreme irritability, meanness, confusion, memory loss, anti-social behavior, and bursts of anger. If this occurs, the person won't realize it, and it's best to tell them gently that they aren't acting like themselves. Only certain people are so sensitive to the drug.

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