On a sunny spring day in 2019, 16-year-old Gabby returned home from the Chicago fast food restaurant where she worked to find her house empty and dark. Her parents — still on the clock at their various jobs — wouldn’t be home for hours. She had the whole night to herself.
She dropped her school bag by the door and made her way to the medicine cabinet in her family’s bathroom. Behind the faded painkiller bottles and expired NyQuil was the stash of Benadryl her mother kept on hand for allergies; its magenta box ripped and crinkled from use. She took it out and pushed 25 of the little pink pills through their protective foil, pausing for a moment to listen to the clinking sound they made as they slid across each other like tiny seashells in her hand. Placing them on her tongue in groups of five, she swallowed all of them with a glass of water until nothing was left but the faint pink residue of their coating on her palm.
According to clinical studies and manufacturer labeling, the maximum daily dose for Benadryl is 300 milligrams. For common indications such as allergies or short-term insomnia, it’s safe to take one 25-milligram tablet every four to six hours — or one 50-milligram tablet every six to eight hours — but Gabby took far more than that. A friend had told her doses over 300 milligrams could make you trip, so she took 625.
Three hours later, she was cowering in the darkened corner of her room as seething hordes of transparent, long-haired spiders scurried across her face and body. Cats appeared before her, sublimating into nothingness as she reached out to pet them while imaginary text conversations materialized with maddening urgency on her phone. Terrified, her heart rate skyrocketed, pounding erratically until eventually she nodded off.
A year later, Gabby, now 17, remembers the four-hour trip as “hellish,” “sinister” and “dark,” but when she recovered, she wanted more. “I’m very much tuned into its magical effects,” she writes over Reddit DM. “Even if they’re a little terrifying.”
Benadryl — the first antihistamine ever approved by the FDA — has a long and rosy history as one of America’s favorite over-the-counter drugs. Sold in capsule, tablet or liquid form nearly everywhere since 1980, it’s often used to alleviate symptoms like itching, sneezing and increased mucus production that result from allergies and colds. Because it blocks the itch-enhancing compound histamine, it’s a solid fix for insect bites and hives, but its chemical action as a serotonin reuptake inhibitor makes it a handy fix for insomnia, anxiety, nausea and the tremors associated with Parkinson’s disease, too. Because of this, it’s developed a reputation as somewhat of a panacea, winning over itchy Americans with its ability to nip any medicine cabinet problem in the bud without serious risks or side effects.
Given its upstanding history, it’s hard to envision Benadryl as a “terrifying” drug. But for those who choose to abuse it, it can be. Unlike other OTC antihistamines (Claritin, Allegra and Zyrtec, for example), Benadryl contains an active ingredient called diphenhydramine (DPH) that can act as a psychoactive deliriant at high doses, producing full-blown visual and auditory hallucinations that last anywhere from minutes to hours at various levels of intensity.
According to Laura Hong, managing director of the virtual medication management service My Pharmacist Friend, doses higher than 300 milligrams can produce this effect, but most anecdotal accounts cite 500 milligrams as the minimum requirement to produce delirium. At that level, users can expect hallucinations, dysphoria, confusion, memory disruptions, extremely dry mouth and a maddening inability to pee, but unlike low-dose Benadryl, they’re unlikely to get off side-effect free. It’s not uncommon for high-dose recreational users to experience things like lasting sexual dysfunction, cognitive problems, blurred vision, heart issues, liver damage and addictive symptoms after their trip, and long-term use has been shown to increase the risk of both Alzheimer’s and dementia. In some cases, Hong says, overdosing on Benadryl can even lead to death.
TikTok’s recent “Benadryl Challenge” was a sad reminder of just how easily Benadryl can turn from friendly to fatal. Earlier this year, teens used short, peppy videos to encourage each other to hallucinate on it, a trend that landed a handful of them in the hospital and led to the death of a 15-year-old girl in Oklahoma City. But while TikTok removed most of the videos and banned the hashtag from its search — and the FDA issued a subsequent warning against Benadryl overdose — their efforts did little to curb the social media mania that’s been percolating around the drug for years.
People have always abused OTC medications — “robotripping” off the dextromethorphan in cough syrup is practically an ancient rite — but light internet sleuthing reveals it was around 2012 that Benadryl really seemed to come online as a recreational drug. Though whispers of its deliriant effects had been circulating both on and off the internet for years, that was the year that people started post trip report videos on YouTube in a big way, linking their private pastimes with their public identities to create personal brands around getting high. Benadryl — legal, relatable and ubiquitous — was a perfect target for review.
Then, in 2016, YouTuber Tana Mongeau put a glossier, blonder spin on things, recounting her own experience in a viral video titled, “I OVERDOSED ON BENADRYL & TRIPPED LIKE ACID: STORYTIME.” In it, Mongeau — who was 18 at the time — describes glugging “¾ of a Benadryl bottle” after an allergy attack, rifling off the events of her unraveling with characteristic rich-girl vocal fry as if what happened to her were any other Crazy Night™. You can tell from her tone that she’s totally okay — “Well, I didn’t die, so, um, yeah!” — but it’s easy to wonder whether her nonchalance might minimize the risk for anyone who thinks blacking out at a go-kart track sounds fun.
Mongeau’s video, which racked up more than 2.7 million views and is one of YouTube’s most popular Benadryl entries, was neither the first nor only one to infuse the humble antihistamine with the sort of undue trippiness that it’s come to ooze, but its continued popularity makes one thing clear — a common anti-sneeze medication has become social media’s unlikeliest darling, and not many care to read the label.
Case in point: In June, Benadryl spent a few days trending on Twitter for no discernible reason, racking up tens of thousands of posts and comments from adoring fans who gushed over its various virtues and off-label uses.
Meanwhile, on Instagram, BenadrylUK — which contains a different active ingredient than the U.S. version — markets itself as some sort of aspirational teen lifestyle brand, partnering with young beauty influencers for a campaign to end so-called “allergy face,” a dubious condition in which a person’s allergies render their face too ruddy and puffy for seamless makeup application. Their solution? Pop a benny, baby.
But while people of all ages publicly proclaim their love for Benadryl on social media, what’s also clear is that overusing it has become a particular pastime of the young. Gabby, who spends a fair amount of time on the harm-reduction subreddit r/DPH, says she’s never seen so many young kids asking for dosage recommendations or what they’ll see when they take it. “Sadly, I think it’s because of all the memes,” she says. “I never used to see memes or Benadryl highs being discussed like they are now.”
But while YouTube videos and viral challenges like the one on TikTok play a part, Hong also suspects it has to do with the unique way DPH affects the central nervous systems of younger people. “Benadryl is an anticholinergic-antihistamine drug,” she explains. “It blocks the effect of histamine in our body, typically resulting in suppression of the central nervous system, which leads to drowsiness and other cognitive depression. However, in younger patients, especially pediatric patients, Benadryl can cause a paradoxical excitation of the central nervous system, which can result in hallucinations, convulsions or even death.” Strangely, this doesn’t seem to be true in infants, toddlers or older adults — more often than not, she says, its delirious, excitatory effects are relegated to the same people who’d take a TikTok challenge in the first place.
But things remain weird there, too. Though most recreational Benadryl users seem to be teens and twentysomethings, they don’t appear to actually enjoy the high they post so much about. Rather — as can be seen in the posts and comments of Reddit’s many DPH subreddits — they tend to agree that getting high on Benadryl absolutely sucks.
For starters, the trips — described by even its biggest fans as “hellish,” “grotesque,” “grating” and “fucking horrible” — are nothing like the beautiful, ego-ablating hallucinations of LSD and shrooms. Instead, they’re often characterized by teeming swarms of “Benadryl insects,” shadow people and a so-called “Hat Man” with white eyes who appears to haunt users even after their trips end. There’s no reward to these trips, either — mostly, they’re empty and meaningless, like walking through a haunted house alone.
Likewise, its high-dose side effects — delirium, seizures, psychosis, liver failure, lingering depression and coma — are both rampant and debilitating, prompting most users on r/DPH and beyond to beg others to stay far, far away. Worse, its reputation as the “world’s least addictive recreational drug” seems to be patently false; many users say their trips have left them hooked, caught in Benadryl’s clutches with no way out.
“People think it’s safe just because it’s sold over-the-counter,” says addiction counselor Athena Lennon, explaining that “most” of the recovering addicts she works with use it as a safe, non-addictive solution for anxiety, mood regulation and the insomnia that often accompanies withdrawal. (Benadryl is generally thought to be chemically non-addictive, though it can become psychologically so.) “But of course it’s fucking not! It’s a drug — if you take too much too often, it can absolutely create a dependence.”
Joe, a 22-year-old from North Carolina who spends his time trying to steer people on r/DPH away from trying Benadryl, discovered this after he started taking it to escape the harsh reality of his severe depression earlier this year. He liked how it felt in the 300- to 400-milligram range, but after hearing that a dose over 1,000 milligrams could kill him, he bumped it up to 975 in the hopes it would end his life. But instead of slipping away in an antihistamine-induced stupor like he’d hoped, he found himself immersed in “one of the most horrifying experiences of [his] life,” snarled in the clutches of a dark and sinister force he hadn’t wanted to meet.
Like Gabby, it started with spiders — thousands of them. “I could feel them stepping on me and biting me,” he remembers. “I could grab them and feel them in my hands. This led to the worst part of my trip, which was when I was watching Parks and Rec and suddenly, everyone on the screen started staring at me and bleeding out of their eyes and mouth. Everything in my room turned eerily silent and all the spiders began to flee.” That’s when the fabled Hat Man appeared, leering over him and staring into his soul like a Grim Reaper sent to terrify, not to take.
Joe survived — much to his chagrin — but he was left with excruciating liver pain, intense withdrawal symptoms, panic attacks, severe memory loss, erectile dysfunction and even worse depression than he’d had before. “I haven’t touched it since,” he says. “Please warn people to stay away from DPH. It really shouldn’t be OTC.”
Interestingly, even heavy Benadryl users seem to agree (many clinicians do, too — there’s actually a movement to make it prescription-only working its way across the medical community right now). “No one is actually a fan of this shitty-ass drug,” says Danny, an 18-year-old online college student who started taking high doses out of boredom last year. “I see people trending on TikTok saying that Benadryl is like acid, and I laugh at their stupidity. It’s terrible. All it does is distract you from your shitty reality, then hurts you in return. People underestimate it, and it traps them in an endless cycle of delirium.”
To cope, many people seek out advice, levity and friendship on r/DPH and Reddit’s other Benadryl-forward subs. The vast majority of its posts are either warnings or cries for help, with a healthy amount of practical guidance and macabre memes peppered in to lighten the mood in between. The sub also has a Discord chat room where members discuss everything from intake methods to thoughts of suicide, pacified by the common bond of having descended into a, drug-induced underworld few others can understand.
The obvious question in all of this, of course, is why anyone would abuse it in the first place. When good information about Benadryl overuse is readily available and there are entire communities like r/DPH whose most fervent users are also its most adamant foes, why tune out with a little pink pill when there are so many better options for escape?
If you ask Lennon, it’s the same reason at the core of some of 2020’s most confusing and complicated revelations — good old COVID-19. “When the stress goes up, people look for a way out,” she says, explaining that it’s no coincidence that Benadryl was trending on TikTok this particular summer. “And right now, there’s almost nothing more stressful than being stuck at home with yourself, your thoughts and the same few people, who you may or may not actually want to be around. Quarantine is driving everyone crazy — I’ve never been busier as a counselor in my life — so it makes sense to me that people would reach for the lowest common denominator to catch a break.”
It also makes sense that they wouldn’t have to reach much further than their medicine cabinets to get it. Without the parties, hangouts and in-person social connections that make it easier to find far more enjoyable drugs like molly, mushrooms or even booze, teens are making due with what they’ve got — a cheap, readily available OTC they can hide in plain sight and buy a limitless supply of at their friendly local Rite Aid.
To wit, escape-by-substance has been more of a thing since quarantine began. Alcohol sales rose 55 percent in March, drug relapses have been increasing, everyone’s on some sort of hallucinogenic personal journey and Lennon says that Passages, the rehabilitation center in Malibu where she works, has been so busy that they’ve had to turn new clients away. The fact that Benadryl offers a uniquely uncomfortable getaway doesn’t surprise her, either — when you need to get out, any vehicle will do.
But for Gabby, it’s more than that. She cherishes the darkness and the grotesque cacophony of sound and visuals that Benadryl forces on her when she’s home alone — she says it’s blatant and unapologetic shittiness makes her feel alive. “Many view it as a hellish drug, but sometimes the hellishness is quite enticing,” she admits. “LSD is bright and beautiful, but what about the dark side of psychedelics? Benadryl is a way for me to experience something I wouldn’t get from a regular trip.”
Not everyone wants to spent four or five hours in a roiling spider pit, obviously, but she does have a point — other hallucinogens like LSD and mushrooms tend to offer fantastical alternatives to reality, putting us in hyper-connected headspaces we wish existed, but that dissipate the moment sobriety returns (er, when you dose them correctly, that is — we’ve all had a weird night on mushrooms).
For Gabby, Benadryl accomplishes the opposite. It’s a shit drug taken in a shit world, to be lived through without the pretension of a “heart opening” or a potential communion with god. It’s an escape route in its own right, but it’s one that takes her deeper into reality, pressing her to confront its ugliness head-on.
Some people go to that place and never come back, but she craves the relief she feels when she returns back to a reality that’s better than the hellscape she just experienced (though she doesn’t recommend you do the same). Even today, she’ll take 25 to 30 pills at a time (a dosage of 625 to 750 milligrams) and tune out, cognizant of the fact that for her, even a nightmare can be a vacation.
She’s had no major side effects so far, but she dreads the day when she’ll have to stop taking it. And the more attention it gets on TikTok and beyond, the more likely she fears that day will come sooner rather than later. “I’m not excited about this trend,” she continues. “I don’t want Benadryl to be regulated because of these stupid kids making it more misconceived. They see it as a game, when in reality they don’t know what they’re getting into. I’d like it if they maybe asked questions [on r/DPH], but they’re just overdosing and making it harder on the rest of us.”