The FDA does not want you to cook your chicken in NyQuil. Nobody, in fact, wants to cook their chicken in NyQuil—that’s the whole joke. But the FDA issued a warning about “social media challenges involving medicines” because even shitposts can kill you, if you choose to make shitposts that are dumb enough.
Now, is cooking NyQuil chicken truly deadly? We don’t have evidence of that, yet. But the ingredients of the medication can cause serious toxicity if you take too much of them, and boiling NyQuil down increases the concentration of those ingredients. There’s also the possibility of inhaling them in the process of filming your shitpost, but we’ll get to that.
The FDA pointed out that it’s only been a few years since one teen died and several others were hospitalized after taking large doses of the allergy medication Benadryl. TikTok videos had reportedly given the teens the idea—take enough of the medication and you’ll hallucinate—but the amount it takes to cause hallucinations is dangerously close to the amount that can kill you. What about NyQuil?
What’s in NyQuil, anyway?
The active ingredients in standard formulation NyQuil (the Cough, Cold & Flu Nighttime Relief Liquid) are acetaminophen, dextromethorphan, and doxylamine.
Acetaminophen is the same active ingredient as in Tylenol. It’s a fever reducer and pain reliever. It’s also notoriously toxic to the liver when ingested in large quantities. Overdoses of this drug are responsible for 500 deaths each year in the US, half of which are unintentional. Acetaminophen toxicity is the second most common reason for liver transplants, after cirrhosis.
Acetaminophen toxicity can also cause dangerous skin reactions, which I strongly recommend you do not google images of, including toxic epidermal necrolysis and acute generalized exanthematous pustulosis. These conditions “are extremely painful and can lead to blindness and death,” according to the National Institutes of Health.
The toxic dose is estimated at 7.5 to 10 grams of acetaminophen per day. A 12-ounce bottle of NyQuil contains 7.8 grams, putting the dosage right around that threshold. If you do ingest a serious amount of acetaminophen, get to the emergency room right away.
Dextromethorphan is a cough suppressant, so you’ll find it in a lot of cold medicines. It’s also notorious for causing hallucinations and dissociation. If cough syrup makes you feel weird, you might be getting a mild version of this effect—and yes, people have chugged whole bottles of various cough syrups for recreational purposes. (Again: don’t chug a bottle of NyQuil, since it has potentially life-threatening levels of acetaminophen. we have Better legal highs for you here.)
The drug binds serotonin receptors, potentially leading to serotonin syndrome, which can be life threatening. Severe cases can include seizures, rhabdomyolysis, kidney failure, and respiratory failure. Overdoses of dextromethorphan are more likely if you take other drugs that act on the serotonin syndromeincluding antidepressants like SSRIs and MAOIs.
The dose that can cause “complete dissociation and coma” on its own is 600 milligrams or higher. A 12-ounce bottle of NyQuil contains 360 milligrams, which is under that threshold, but still very high compared to a normal dose and potentially dangerous in combination with other medications.
Doxylamine is an antihistamine and is in the same chemical family as the main ingredient of Benadryl—which, as mentioned earlier, can cause toxicity that leads to death. High doses of doxylamine can cause hallucinations, but also respiratory failure, seizures, rhabdo, and coma.
The lethal dose of doxylamine has been estimated at 25 to 250 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. That lower level would equal 1,250 grams for a 50-kilogram (110-pound) teen. A 12-ounce bottle of NyQuil only has about 150 milligrams of doxylamine, so among the ingredients you might ingest or inhale while cooking your NyQuil chicken, this is arguably the least likely to kill you.
What happens when you cook NyQuil
Unsurprisingly, my searches for scientific literature on what happens when you cook chicken in NyQuil came up empty. Science proceeds slowly, but the recipe made its debut on 4chan in 2017, so one can hope there are ongoing studies. (I imagine the researchers giving mice tiny cell phones to fully recreate the process.)
The FDA points out that they expect cooking NyQuil to concentrate its ingredients, much in the same way that boiling balsamic vinegar can create a syrupy reduction. Boil your NyQuil down in the same way, and it’s possible that a few spoonfuls of the resulting syrup could contain high enough doses of the active ingredients to be harmful.
The other problem is that the ingredients in the syrup may so boil off. That would seem to be a good thing, since they won’t be in the resulting dish, but it also means that you could inhale them during the process. “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,” the FDA warns. “It could also hurt your lungs.”
NyQuil chicken is fake, by the way
I find NyQuilChickenGate sociologically fascinating. It has a little bit of the cachet of a fake moral panic, in which grownups start telling each other stories about what they heard the teens are doing. (See also: rainbow parties, tainted halloween candy.) But here it’s obvious that nobody is eating NyQuil chicken. The FDA knows this: they called the stunt “silly and unappetizing,” and emphasized the ways it can be dangerous even if you don’t chow down on a whole plate of it.
So that’s where we are: if something appears on social media and can be carried out with commonly available items, some kid somewhere is going to try it. See also: the Tide Pod challenge, in which teenagers were eating or pretending to eat Tide Pods specifically because nobody wants to eat them. That’s the whole joke.
The FDA does not necessarily think the teens of the world see NyQuil chicken as a cool dinner recipe, but they know that doing dumb shit for internet points is the current American pastime, and one of these days somebody is going to inhale dangerous levels of cough syrup making what they think is a harmless video for clicks.