Why the TikTok ‘Benadryl Challenge’ Is So Dangerous

The Food and Drug Administration investigated reports of severe illness and death.

TikTok challenges—and before the app, challenges done by adolescents in general—aren't anything new. 

Many TikTok challenges have primarily focused on learning dance moves or doing push-ups. But another, more dangerous trend gained popularity on the app. It's called the "Benadryl challenge."

In September 2020, the Food and Drug Administration released a report that warned against the challenge following the death of an adolescent girl who consumed too much Benadryl (diphenhydramine).

Here's what you should know about safely taking Benadryl and the risks of taking too much.

What Is the TikTok Benadryl Challenge?

In its 2020 report, the Food and Drug Administration stated that it had been investigating reports of hospitalizations and deaths of adolescents participating in the "Benadryl challenge." For the challenge, which gained popularity on TikTok, people take a large amount of Benadryl to experience a high that triggers hallucinations.

The agency added that it had contacted TikTok to urge the removal of such videos from its platform. It also warned consumers against exceeding the recommended doses of over-the-counter (OTC) medications.

Benadryl can cause health issues if abused, Gina Posner, MD, a board-certified pediatrician at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, Calif., told Health. 

"It's fine in small doses but taking large doses is a bad idea," said Dr. Posner. 

Why Would You Normally Take Benadryl?

Benadryl is a brand-name, OTC version of the generic drug diphenhydramine. Diphenhydramine is a sedating antihistamine that blocks histamines. Histamines are chemicals in some of your body's cells released as part of your body's allergic reaction.

So, people typically use antihistamines to treat allergies and upper gastrointestinal (GI) conditions caused by excessive stomach acid. Additionally, Benadryl can relieve any of the following symptoms:

  • Red, itchy, irritated eyes
  • Sneezing
  • Runny nose
  • Other allergy symptoms
  • Common cold symptoms
  • Cough
  • Motion sickness
  • Insomnia

How Much Benadryl is Recommended?

If you are taking Benadryl for symptoms of colds, allergies, or digestive upset, follow the recommended dose on the medication box. In general, the recommended doses of Benadryl include the following:

  • Children under the age of 6 should not take Benadryl
  • Children ages 6–12 should only take one tablet every 4–6 hours
  • Anyone over the age of 12 can take one to two tablets every 4–6 hours

Additionally, anyone should not take more than six doses of the drug within 24 hours.

"In general, Benadryl should not be given to kids under six years of age," Robert Weber, PharmD, an administrator for pharmacy services at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, told Health.

Children are especially at risk for an overdose, depending on their age and size, Ashanti Woods, MD, a pediatrician at Baltimore's Mercy Medical Center, told Health. The exact dosage in a child can cause severe adverse health effects, while that dosage might be acceptable in an adult. Dr. Woods added that it might have a "completely different effect" on adolescents than young children.

"The drug in kids from six to 12 may have exaggerated effects and would be possibly even more dangerous," noted Weber. The 12 to 18 age range is a bit of mixed response, but many could have exaggerated and dangerous side effects." 

Weber said the cholinergic receptors, which Benadryl targets, may be more sensitive in children.

What Are the Risks of Taking Too Much Benadryl?

Benadryl is also an anticholinergic drug.

"[Anticholinergic] means that the drug blocks the cholinergic nervous system, which is responsible for saliva production and tear production," explained Weber. "[An anticholinergic drug] facilitates bodily functions, such as urination, heart rate, body temperature, brain function, and eye functioning."

Essentially, Benadryl can impact your whole body. As a result, antihistamines, like Benadryl, may lead to side effects like:

  • Blurry vision
  • Lost appetite
  • Feeling dizzy or drowsy
  • Dry mouth
  • Feeling nervous
  • Irritability

"Just as an allergic reaction can affect multiple organ systems of the body, Benadryl can affect multiple organ systems," added Dr. Woods.

The bottom line? Taking too much Benadryl at any age is not a good idea. 

"Large amounts cause exaggerated effects," said Weber, adding that the following issues can arise after taking too much:

  • Confusion
  • Blurred vision
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Unsteadiness
  • Low blood pressure
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures
  • Death due to changes in heart rhythm 

Antihistamines, like Benadryl, are also dangerous when combined with pain medications and decongestants. Taking Benadryl and either type of medication can lead to an unintentional overdose.

What Did Johnson & Johnson Do About the Challenge?

In August 2020, Johnson & Johnson, Benadryl's parent company, issued a statement to toofab denouncing the TikTok Benadryl challenge. Specifically, Johnson & Johnson stated that the trend is "extremely concerning, dangerous and should be stopped immediately." 

The drugmaker warned that abuse or misuse of Benadryl, as with any drug, "can lead to serious side effects with potentially long-lasting consequences." Additionally, Johnson & Johnson stated that all Benadryl products "should only be used as directed by the label."

Johnson & Johnson said it also recommended keeping all medications out of the reach of children. 

The drugmaker also noted that at that time, it was "working with TikTok and our partners to do what we can to stop this dangerous trend, including the removal of content across social platforms that showcase this behavior."

A Quick Review

Taking too much Benadryl can result in severe symptoms such as low blood pressure, seizures, and even death from changes in heart rhythm.

You should only take Benadryl for symptoms of colds, allergies, or digestive upset. Additionally, you should only administer the recommended dose of Benadryl based on the age of the person taking the medication.

If you or someone you know takes too much Benadryl (or combine it with other medications that make it more potent), it's essential to seek immediate medical attention by calling 911. Or, contact your local poison control center to connect with emergency care.

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