Primarily found social media platforms like TikTok, the “Benadryl challenge” encourages young people to take dangerous amounts of the over-the-counter (OTC) drug diphenhydramine (DHP), commonly found in products as Benadryl and other OTC medications.

The challenge urges viewers to take as many as 12 tablets at a time to supposedly induce hallucinations. For perspective, the maximum allowed dose in a 24-hour period is six tablets for children 6 to under 12 years of age and 12 tablets for adults and children over 12 years of age. Taking more than the recommended amount can lead to nausea, seizures or even death.

Following the report of an alleged overdose and death of one teen, as well as several reported hospitalizations, Benadryl maker Johnson & Johnson took action, issuing a warning about the challenge and working with social media platforms to remove harmful content. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) followed with a health warning about taking Benadryl at more than recommended doses. Several organizations partnered to educate parents and caregivers about the risks of online challenges and the importance of medication safety.

Impact of social media

Social media challenges can feed on sadness or boredom, and teen experimentation with OTC medications isn’t new. However, its popularity can thrive when combined with teens’ ability to broadcast impulsive or dangerous behaviors on social media.

Taking part in social media challenges is often driven by teens’ need for validation and acceptance. With social media, these come quickly in the form of “likes.” Therefore, teen interest in social media challenges can correspond with emotions of sadness, boredom and anger. Impulsiveness and fun with friends are other reasons they may take part in challenges.

Risks of misusing OTC medication

Misuse occurs when a medication is not taken as directed, which could mean taking a higher quantity than instructed or using it for a nonmedical purpose. These medications are sold at grocery and drug stores, regulated by the government, accessible without a prescription and readily available at home. Many teens are not aware that OTC medications can be dangerous when misused.

These medications usually don’t require a teen to make a purchase or seek out the drug on their own. Access and availability are especially relevant during COVID-19, as teens are home more and have easy access to the medicine cabinet.

Keeping your child safe

Despite the validation they might perceive from peers when misusing OTC medication in social media challenges, teens report that knowledge of the serious consequences would make them reconsider engaging in dangerous online challenges related to OTC medication.[1] 

Here are some tips when speaking with your child about this type of risky behavior:

The Benadryl challenge won’t be the last risk-taking social media fad. Be sure to continue the conversation about safe use of OTC medicines.

Be curious about what your child finds interesting on social media, and don’t dismiss their interests as silly or a waste of time. The less they feel criticized for their social media use, the more open they’ll be to your input on trending posts or behavior that are unhealthy, high-risk or otherwise damaging to their well-being.

Helpful resources