When you think of cough syrup, chances are you think of the over-the-counter kind, the type you take in order to soothe the symptoms of a common cough. For many other people across the U.S. however, cough syrup means “sizzurp” and it has an entirely different – and potentially very troubling – connotation.

One in ten American teenagers have admitted to using use cough syrup as a recreational drug, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. These are truly shocking figures which highlight just how prevalent the recreational use of cough syrup has become – especially when you take into account that just two years ago, it was only around 5% of teens who admitted using cough syrup to get high.

So how did this bizarre craze come about? How dangerous is it? And just how worried should we be?

What Is Sizzurp?

Known as “sizzurp,” “purple drank,” or “lean,” this concoction consists of pharmaceutical grade codeine cough syrup that gives the drink its typical purple hue. This is then mixed with soda or other soft drinks. Usually drank from Styrofoam cups, candy and alcohol are also frequently added to the mix to enhance both its sweetness and its potency. Sizzurp produces immediate euphoric side effects and can be very addictive. This, combined with the perception that cough syrup is “harmless,” has helped contribute to its fast increasing prevalence among youth.

The sweet taste of the drink makes it harder for people to realize quite how much they have ingested, as Robert Glatter of Lenox Hill Hospital pointed out: “The sweetness of the soda and candy combined with the drug itself makes people want to have this all day long. They just don’t know how much they’ve had throughout the day and by then, it’s almost too late. This is a very dangerous drug; it can lead to seizures and essentially lead you to stop breathing.”

Who Drinks It?

Although variations of this drink have existed since the 1960s, the real roots of sizzurp are traced to the 1990s hip-hop scene in Texas. Musicians like Three 6 Mafia have even written songs about it (“Sippin on Some Syrup”), but they are by no means the only ones to glamorize the drink. The rapper Lil Wayne has been known to drink sizzurp on a regular basis and has made no attempts to hide his fondness for it; in 2008 he even wrote a song “Me and My Drank”.

Once it made its way out of the underground music scene it quickly began to spread among young people looking for quick fix. Because it’s cheap and easy to make, it is an easy way for teenagers to get a high. Last March, Justin Bieber was seen drinking from a Styrofoam cup – the kind usually equated with sizzurp – and insiders close to the pop star suggest he spends much of his time high on the drink – “lean,” as he supposedly calls it.

Just How Dangerous Is It?

Codeine is a narcotic pain medicine that is conventionally prescribed for the relief of moderate to severe pain. Codeine is highly addictive by itself, and the astounding number of Americans across the country who are abusing pain relief medicines is testament to that. US citizens who have died as a result of abusing prescription pain killers now outnumber the number who died as a result of cocaine and heroin abuse – combined. This alone suggests the potential dangers of codeine, but when combined with alcohol it can be even more deadly.

Promethazine is the other ingredient usually found in prescription cough syrup. As a sedative antihistamine, it is usually used to treat things like insomnia and/or motion sickness, but when taken with codeine can amplify the effects and dangers significantly. Promethazine is a central nervous system depressant, and because codeine is a respiratory depressant the two combined can have fatal results. It is this “cocktail” effect that makes the concoction so deadly and common additions to the drink – such as alcohol and crushed painkillers – only further increase the risk.

Rather than assuming that it’s safe because it’s a medicine used to soothe a simple cough, it is essential for young people to realize the dangers of codeine syrup.




Amy Fry is a proud stay at home mom to a five year-old boy with special needs, she writes about various subjects including mental health and cognitive therapy. For more information about cognitive behavioral visit http://www.clinical-partners.co.uk or http://www.mind.org.uk/

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