FDA warns of teen misuse of Benadryl sparked by 'dangerous' TikTok challenge, asks app to remove videos

FDA warns of teen misuse of Benadryl sparked by 'dangerous' TikTok challenge, asks app to remove videos
(Getty Images)

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has warned of serious problems linked to high doses of the over-the-counter allergy medicine Benadryl, and its misuse by teenagers that could have been sparked by a “dangerous Benadryl challenge” on the social media platform TikTok. The agency said it is aware of news reports of teenagers ending up in emergency rooms or dying after participating in the “Benadryl challenge” encouraged in videos posted on TikTok. The FDA is currently investigating such reports and conducting a review to determine if additional cases have been reported.

“The FDA is warning that taking higher than recommended doses of the common over-the-counter allergy medicine diphenhydramine (Benadryl) can lead to serious heart problems, seizures, coma, or even death,” read a statement issued on September 24. It added, “We will update the public once we have completed our review or have more information to share. We also contacted TikTok and strongly urged them to remove the videos from their platform and to be vigilant to remove additional videos that may be posted.” 

Diphenhydramine is an ‘antihistamine’ used to temporarily relieve symptoms due to hay fever, upper respiratory allergies, or the common cold, such as runny nose and sneezing. It works by blocking histamine in the body, which is a substance that causes allergic symptoms. When used as recommended, it is a safe and effective medicine. Diphenhydramine is marketed under the brand-name Benadryl, store brands, as well as generics. It is also available in combination with pain relievers, fever reducers, and decongestants.

The FDA has urged healthcare professionals to be aware that the “Benadryl challenge” is occurring among teenagers and to alert their caregivers about it. The agency has also asked consumers and healthcare professionals to report side effects involving diphenhydramine and other medicines to its “MedWatch program.” “Encourage teens and caregivers to read and follow the Drug Facts label. In the event of an overdose, healthcare professionals should attempt to determine whether a patient with a suspected overdose took diphenhydramine,” suggested the agency. 

Consumers, parents and caregivers have been instructed to store diphenhydramine and all other over-the-counter and prescription medicines out of children’s reach and sight. “FDA recommends you lock up medicines to prevent accidental poisonings by children and misuse by teens, especially when they are home more often due to the Covid-19 pandemic and may be more likely to experiment,” said the agency.

Diphenhydramine is used to temporarily relieve symptoms due to hay fever, upper respiratory allergies, or the common cold, such as runny nose and sneezing. It is marketed under the brand-name Benadryl, store brands, as well as generics. (Getty Images)

Earlier this month, the Cook Children’s Health Care System in Texas informed that they have treated three teenagers who had ingested excessive amounts of the allergy medication and that TikTok videos were encouraging viewers to overdose on Benadryl. It warned what the patients did not realize is that not only can a Benadryl overdose be harmful to their health, it can also be deadly. One of the teens who ended up at Cook Children’s is a 14-year-old named Rebekah, and she reportedly took 14 Benadryl pills in the middle of the night on Memorial Day.

“Many parents know TikTok videos are a popular way teens are passing the time these days. However, they may not realize the social media platform has a dark side, and some content may be outright dangerous. Three teens were treated at Cook Children’s in May after overdosing on the common allergy medicine diphenhydramine aka Benadryl. Each of these patients said they got the idea from videos on TikTok that claimed users could get high and hallucinate if they took a dozen or more of the allergy pills,” according to the Cook Children’s.

Besides the Benadryl videos, Cook Children’s cautioned that parents should also be aware of a popular TikTok challenge. “It’s called the nutmeg challenge, in which TikTok users drink two to four tablespoons of nutmeg with milk or water and film their reactions. The objective is to get high from the large amount of the spice, but doing this can have detrimental effects on the body. According to the American Association for Clinical Chemistry (AACC), one to four teaspoons of nutmeg can cause dry mouth, agitation, hypothermia, hallucinations, among others — and in some cases, coma and death,” said the statement. It added, “So if your child or teen has a TikTok account, or spends any time online at all, it’s a good idea to monitor what they’re watching. Remember, they’re still developing the part of the brain that controls judgment and impulsivity. It may help to remind them that online challenges, even with things that may seem harmless, can have scary and serious consequences.”

A TikTok spokesperson told CBS MoneyWatch that the company does “not allow content that encourages, promotes, or glorifies dangerous challenges that might lead to injury.” 

Meanwhile, Johnson & Johnson, which makes Benadryl, cautioned on its Benadryl website that “as with any medicine, abuse or misuse can lead to serious side effects with potentially long-lasting or even life-threatening consequences.” It advised that all medications should be kept out of the reach of children at all times. 

“We understand that consumers may have heard about an online ‘challenge’ involving the misuse or abuse of diphenhydramine. The challenge, which involves ingestion of excessive quantities of diphenhydramine, is a dangerous trend and should be stopped immediately. Benadryl products and other diphenhydramine products should only be used as directed by the label,” said the post. It added, “We are working with TikTok and other social platforms to remove content that showcases this behavior. We will look to partner across industry and with key stakeholders to address this dangerous behavior. If you believe that you or someone you know has taken Benadryl or other diphenhydramine products in a manner not directed by the label, please contact your local poison control center.”

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