Mindpath Health’s Julian Lagoy, MD discusses how to handle risky internet trends like TikTok’s NyQuil Chicken Challenge.
TikTok trends come and go constantly. Some, like the “Hot Girl Walk,” are worth considering — they boast physical and mental health benefits.
But the latest challenge known as NyQuil Chicken making the rounds has caught the attention of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and not for good reasons.
In fact, the FDA released a statementTrusted Source earlier this month warning against the challenge, which, as the name implies, involves cooking chicken using the over-the-counter cough and cold medication NyQuil.
“Boiling a medication can make it much more concentrated and change its properties in other ways,” the release read. “Even if you don’t eat the chicken, inhaling the medication’s vapors while cooking could cause high levels of the drugs to enter your body. It could also hurt your lungs.
Healthcare providers unequivocally agree: Don’t try this challenge.
“This is a terrible idea because medication should only be used as directed,” says Betty Choi, M.D., a pediatrician and author of “Human Body Learning Lab.”
At the same time, there’s been some backlash about the warning, saying it drew attention to a relatively-unknown challenge.
But doctors and mental health providers share it’s still important to discuss safe drug use, particularly with children, teenagers, and adults in their early-20s.
Read on the learn the risks, what to do if someone appears to have overdosed on NyQuil, and how to discuss drug misuse with young people.
The dangers of misusing NyQuil
Kelly Johnson-Arbor, M.D., FACEP, FUHM, FACMT, a medical toxicologist and co-medical Director at National Capital Poison Center, explains that NyQuil is made up of a combination of ingredients:
- acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol®
- dextromethorphan, a cough suppressant
- doxylamine, an antihistamine
- It’s commonly used to help with symptoms of:
- the flu
- other conditions that make it difficult to breathe
Though it may be an effective way to catch some relief from sickness and allergies, misusing it carries several risks.
Howard Pratt, D.O., the behavioral health medical director at Community Health of South
Florida, Inc. (CHI) says these risks include:
- difficulty breathing
- increased urination
- dilated pupils
- liver disease
Pratt agrees with the FDA that simply heating NyQuil even without consuming it can make it more potent, as does Johnson-Arbor.
“When the pan is heated, alcohol and other volatile compounds present in the NyQuil will evaporate, leaving behind a concentrated amount of potentially poisonous NyQuil ingredients,” Johnson-Arbor warns.
If you believe someone has overdosed on NyQuil, the FDA advises you to call 911 or poison control at 1-800-222-1222.
Why young people are vulnerable to trends like NyQuil Chicken
Given the numerous risks of misusing NyQuil, particularly by cooking it, what would prompt someone to do it?
Providers share several factors in play, particularly in teenagers and adults under 25.
Experts note that the human brain doesn’t fully develop until a person is around 25 years old.
“The part of the brain that develops last is the frontal cortex which is responsible for cognition and judgment,” notes Julian Lagoy, M.D., a psychiatrist with Mindpath Health.
Young people are more likely to engage in risky behavior because their brains are still developing.
“At this time of development, they are prone to taking risks and participate in challenges and dares that older people wouldn’t try,” says Sara Siddiqui, M.D. FAAP of NYU Langone Huntington Medical Group and an assistant clinical professor at NYU Hassenfelds Children’s Hospital.
Of course, the audience on TikTok skews toward youth.
According to 2022 PEW Research, about two-thirds of teens shared they had used the platform. This means teens and young people are particularly at risk for “challenge” trends like NyQuil chicken.
Pressure from others has long been associated with drug abuse, particularly in teens, but research suggests it can continue into adulthood.
A 2020 studyTrusted Source of 359 individuals ages 18 to 29 suggests that peer pressure is linked with drug abuse (or refraining from it).
A qualitative review from 2020Trusted Source of people ages 18 to 52 indicated that peer pressure to drink alcohol could trigger feelings of isolation and a decision to give in and drink.
Choi agrees that peer pressure is a risk factor for participating in the NyQuil Chicken Challenge, particularly in individuals who seek approval from others.
It seems safe on social media
TikTok users who participate in the NyQuil challenge do not appear to suffer negative consequences, giving others a false sense of security.
This sense of security may not be the only thing that’s fake, though.
“What many kids and even adults often don’t realize about many of these social media challenges is that people are faking it and aren’t really doing what they appear to be doing,” Pratt says.
Johnson-Arbor points out that the videos typically don’t show people eating the chicken cooked in NyQuil, though they can be edited to look like they are. Videos can also easily avoid showing negative side effects.
Discussing the NyQuil Chicken Challenge with young people you know
Experts share it’s important to discuss the NyQuil Chicken Challenge with people who may be at risk for participating.
Parents and other trusted adults can particularly drive these discussions with teenagers and adults in their 20s.
But does mentioning the NyQuil Chicken Challenge risk drawing unnecessary attention to it? Already, the FDA has received some backlash for issuing a warning.
According to data that TikTok gave to BuzzFeed News, there were only five searches for NyQuil Chicken prior to the warning. Since then, there have been thousands.
Choi says discussing drug misuse, even generally, can help.
“Even if your child does not know about the TikTok videos, it is a good idea to talk about medication and drug safety,” she says.
Choi and others shared how to approach the conversation.
Model safe drug use
Aside from not participating in these challenges, adults can also serve as role models when they use medications or administer them to a child.
“Model reading the medication label and double-checking the dose,” Choi suggests. “Talk about where you keep medications and why this is a safe place for storage.”
Choi also recommends using this time to discuss the purpose of the medication.
Approach from a place of care and respect
The sit-down “just say no to drugs” lecture from parents as their children approach high school has changed.
Siddiqui suggests choosing a time when the young person is ready and open to talking. Then ask open-ended questions about what they know about certain drugs and friends’ behaviors.
Lagoy says it’s important to ensure the person knows why you want to discuss drugs further — not to scare them but to guide them.
“Tell your children that you love them first, and you are telling them this because you want them to be safe and you love them,” Lagoy says. “ When kids hear this, they are more likely to listen to you and to respect and honor your opinion.”
If your child or friend has already participated in the challenge, it’s natural to feel concerned
“I would still talk to them and be respectful of them with the goal of them not doing it again,” Lagoy says. “Sometimes, children are more likely to do something if you upset them or humiliate them so they can be ‘rebellious.’ If you talk to your children with respect and love, they’re more likely to listen to you and honor your judgment and wisdom.”
Seek to understand why they did it, explain the dangers, and discuss better ways to evaluate social media challenges, such as asking for advice from a trusted adult.
Discuss social media
Drug misuse is one piece of the NyQuil Chicken Challenge. Social media is the other.
The NyQuil Chicken Challenge isn’t the first unsafe thing to surface on TikTok, and it won’t be the last.
Pratt suggests reminding young people that not every social media video is real.
“You also want to make sure that they understand that…this is not an example of what actually happens in the real world where there are often real consequences,” Pratt says.
In short, the NyQuil Chicken Challenge is yet another example of social media run amok.
Misusing NyQuil can result in a host of health issues, from difficulty breathing to seizures and in some cases even death.
While the trend may have tanked prior to the FDA warning, it’s still worth discussing with young people in your life as a “teachable” moment.
You can use it as an opportunity to discuss how to use social media and over-the-counter medications responsibly.
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