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Is Nyquil a drug of choice?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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I’m so rarely sick, but every so often, usually after vaulting over the plagues of my nearest and dearest, I succumb to one germ or another. For me sickness involves a careful assembly line of water, orange juice and herbal tea, as I’m a stalwart avoider of over-the-counter medication when possible (I eat almonds or nap to cure my headaches).

But every time I’m sick, a tiny little space deep inside my psyche is smiling — I can have Nyquil again.

For me, Nyquil elicits pleasantly heavy, hallucinogenic dreams and pre-sleep experiences, which I, because I fervently enjoy dreaming, relish. It’s nearly magical.

However, I’ve known a friend who so much enjoys the quality of Nyquil sleep that he struggles and has headaches when finally trying to get off of the stuff post-sickness. This got me thinking, how many of us have a favorite feel-better trick or dependence? Or worse, one that slips into our post-sickness lives?

Wired does a nice explainer on what Nyquil actually contains. One of its components dextromethorphan, or DXM, is found in many over-the-counter cold medications and is a recreational drug of small infamy. According to the DEA website, DXM abuse increased over 15% between 1999 and 2004.

DXM can cause hallucinations, dissociation and psychedelic trips, among other things, when taken to an excessive degree (12 times the recommended amount) or less for those with drug sensitivity. And it’s not just the adolescent demographic, most known for intentionally “Robotripping.”

Though it sounds likely an unlikely choice of habit for the rest of the population, some rely upon it as a crutch after giving up another addiction, like alcohol, trading one substance problem for another. Jane Lynch, Sue Sylvester in the popular TV show Glee, is one such example. Lynch gave up alcohol 20 years before finding cold medicine as an accidental substitute.

After a quick internet search, I found many a help request from those unsure what to do when they find themselves reliant on Nyquil or another cold medication, an example can be found in this “Nyquil Unite” LiveJournal blog from 2005:

It all started when I was in Japan. I was active duty in the Marines. Well we used to get terrible typhoons and when the power went out, we wild out. I say a Navy corpman doped up like never before, like he was on percoset or something. Well with random drug testing, we weren’t allowed to share drugs of that sort so we turned to the best over the counter solution to all problems….NyQuil. It was almost every day after work, I indulged in the pills. Then the liquid, then the the pills and the liquid, I WAS LOVIN IT. I got pregnant soon after, I had to quit. 9 months later, I was back in action and so was my NyQuil. You can turn to it for anything. When you day totally sucks, just drink a bottle and wake up tomorrow. Depressed, drink up, you forget it all. It is the best!!!! I am sooooo obsessed.

More troubling are those who research and claim to understand the implications for what they do:

I take it nightly for sleep problems [Otherwise, I do not sleep at all.], and have slowly become addicted, it would seem. It’s my little legal drug-buddy, and everyone knows it; I educate myself in the field of narcotics as much as I can, so I know what to trust. While Diphenhydramine [Sominex] used to do it for me, NyQuil has become my favourite sedative, aside from hospital anesthesia. I walk around while the effect lasts, laughing silently at the numbness in my legs and arms; not a good idea, I know, but walking down a stairwell in such a state is simply wondrous.

In the end, how many of us strive for mind-altering from time to time? It’s legal, right? Where’s the line between a pleasant night’s sleep and drug dependency or abuse, and more importantly, will we know when we cross it?

Acetaminophen and other components of common cold and fever-reducing OTC medication have health risks and side effects. Check out safe use and risks outlined here.

Cassie Rodenberg About the Author: I write on culture, poverty, addiction, and mental illness: I explore things we like to ignore. I also teach public school in New York City's South Bronx. Follow on Twitter @cassierodenberg.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. davidwogan 12:12 pm 12/22/2011

    I’m like you and avoid medication as much as possible. My cold/flu routine is water, Emergen-C, and zinc tablets.. and when things get really bad, Nyquil.

    I was sick last week and had a Nyquil at bed. Strange dreams ensued along with me waking up in the middle night standing in my room. Crazy stuff!!

    Link to this
  2. 2. Danm1701 11:33 pm 12/22/2011

    Nah, it’s Benadryl for that good nights’ sleep.

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  3. 3. Loriradz 12:23 am 12/23/2011

    I tried NyQuil once and it just made me sick to my stomach and made my headache worse…I have never taken it again..It certainly gave me nothing like a high or anything remotely beneficial

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  4. 4. AZgirl7 12:23 am 12/23/2011

    Oh no…now this gets me worried. I never thought about people getting hooked on Nyquil. I am however adamant about telling people that nothing beats it for getting through colds, which can take weeks before all the coughing finally goes away. I just don’t want Big Brother to think people like it too much or it’s a ‘drug problem’. God forbid we have free access to something that actually works without the obligatory Dr. visit. I’ve gone a week at times without ANY decent sleep when fighting a cold. Since I was a kid, my night coughing with a cold is non-stop. It’s drives me and my homemates CRAZY. My Dad even used to yell “Stop Coughing!” Or my mother would call out “Turn on your stomach!” Besides Rx Codeine cough syrup, Nyquil is the ONLY thing that stops the cough and lets me get a great nights sleep. I do find it quite potent though and only need 1/4 of that little plastic cupful. It knocks me out along with the cough, which IS what I need and want. But I don’t want to be hungover for Pete’s sake. So I do admit to being ‘addicted’ to Nyquil, but only when I have a cold, and I don’t want THEM to take it away. So if you guys use it daily, or for other things, please keep it to yourself, OK? What a joke when not too long ago they took the Prima-tine asthma inhaler off the market because the aersol part of it hurts the ozone layer. Not a single line anywhere saying “HELLO?…. The mist is going into their mouths, NOT being sprayed in the air!!! The controllers must laugh their ass off when they pull these things and get away with it.

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