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November 26, 2007

BehindTheMedspeak: NyQuil — What they don't teach you in medical school


Or maybe I was absent the day we covered this potion, the modern day version of snake oil, used to treat just about anything.

In Patrick Di Justo's "What's Inside" feature in the November, 2007 issue of Wired magazine, a deconstruction of this über-drug revealed much that surprised me.

Here's the juice.

    NyQuil, Fortified With Powerful Narcotics!


    One of the many wonder-pharmaceuticals that can be derived from coal tar, acetaminophen was used for nearly a century as a painkiller and fever reducer before anyone figured out how it worked. We now know that as the drug breaks down in the body, it turns into a cannabinoid: yes, stoners, the same type of compound that makes marijuana so irresistible. Doctors also once thought acetaminophen made users more talkative and outgoing. Current research suggests this idea was half-baked.

    Dextromethorphan HBr

    A cough suppressant. Well, actually, in the body it becomes dextrorphan, a cough suppressant, and levorphanol, a painkiller five times as powerful as morphine. Like PCP and ketamine, DXM is also an NMDA receptor antagonist, so the National Institute on Drug Abuse lists it as a "dissociative" drug. Twelve times the recommended dose of NyQuil leads to distorted perceptions of sight and sound and produces feelings of detachment — dissociation — from the environment and oneself. For people whose bodies are unusually slow at metabolizing the drug, even low doses of DXM trigger full-blown "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" psychedelic trips.

    Doxylamine succinate

    Officially, this ingredient is on the label as an antihistamine. But it is equally useful as a sleep aid, providing a nice, convenient one-two... Zzzz.

    Citric acid

    Citric acid has proven somewhat effective as a flu killer, but only if you spray it into your nose. Because NyQuil is meant to be swallowed, not snorted, its presence here is probably to add a little tang, and possibly to act as a low-level preservative.


    Hooch has been used as a folk remedy for the common cold for centuries (despite the fact that it doesn't work). But according to Procter & Gamble, alcohol's sole purpose in NyQuil is to serve as a solvent, keeping the top three ingredients in solution.

    Polyethylene glycol and propylene glycol

    Chemical cousins used as thickeners. NyQuil's consistency is somewhere between water and honey, but not because it needs to be. Drug marketers know many people prefer medicines in syrup form.

    Sodium citrate

    In other contexts sodium citrate is an anticoagulant; most likely it is used here as a buffer to maintain the acid-base balance of all the other ingredients.


    P&G isn't talking, but we suspect the cloyingly repulsive taste of NyQuil is to ensure that you can swallow a tablespoon or two but can't drink enough of the stuff to start seeing Jesus.

    High fructose corn syrup

    A dash of sugar helps that tablespoon or two go down.


I wouldn't be at all surprised if in a couple years this drug is placed behind the counter, available only by adult request.

And that's even without the current kerfuffle about the apparent uselessness and potential hazards of such medications in children.

November 26, 2007 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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Fact is, most people don't care.

Think about it this way, you are poor, you have kids, they need fed. The most cost effective food is the highly processed crap that will most likely make you fat and give you diabetes, and the healthy stuff costs 2x the other because it doesn't get subsidies. You kid gets the chance to eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich as his only lunch option because this is affordable, or he gets to starve because you can only give him a single slice of bread with nothing on it.

Stop Buying It is an easy thing to say...as an educated middle class person working for a university and supporting only himself, I STILL find it entirely expensive to buy the good stuff. I do, but there are times I go for the cheap jellies for my own sam'miches, because the natural / organic stuff just isn't in the budget. It is way too expensive to be healthy in America.

Posted by: clifyt | Nov 28, 2007 10:38:42 AM

I suppose "Stop buying it" is too easy! It's insidious stuff, isn't it.

Posted by: Skipweasel | Nov 28, 2007 9:26:56 AM

Yes, HFCS has invaded our food supply. Courtesy
of the Corn Refiners Association, go to
www.corn.org/NSFC2006.pdf. Pages 29-30 list
all the foods and products that contain HFCS.
Be prepared to be shocked. There is hope.
StopHFCS.com has compiled a list of HFCS-free
food. They welcome additions and suggestions.

Posted by: Cynthia Papierniak | Nov 27, 2007 11:21:27 PM

Yes, Skip, everything in America has corn syrup in it.

Actually, they say this is one of the reasons diabetes is so rampant here. You can't process it as readily as cane sugar...but the corn farmers have got such a lock on the politics that they get so many subsidies that corn and corn products are the cheapest things anyone can buy in the US. Pretty sad...

Posted by: clifyt | Nov 27, 2007 6:08:58 PM

Does everything in America contain high fructose corn syrup? It seems to appear all over the place.

Posted by: Skipweasel | Nov 27, 2007 2:49:02 PM

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