Teenage Drug Addiction: A Complete Guide

Many adolescents (teenagers) experiment with substances a few times and stop. But sometimes stopping is difficult and addiction occurs when use continues despite negative consequences. 

Parents can help prevent teen drug abuse by talking to them about consequences and being aware of the signs. This article reviews statistics, risk factors, health effects, symptoms, and treatment for teenage drug addiction.

Teenagers sharing cigarettes and alcohol at a house party

Sturti / Getty Images

Teenage Substance Misuse Statistics

Basic Statistics

  • Substance use at school: 86% of teenagers know someone who uses a substance during the school day.
  • Drug misuse: 50% of teens report misusing a drug at least once.
  • Drug use in preteens: Drug use among eighth-graders increased 61% from 2016-2020.

Commonly Used Substances and Rates of Use

  • Alcohol: Sixty-seven percent of high-school students have tried alcohol.
  • Tobacco: Forty percent of high-schoolers have tried smoking cigarettes.
  • Marijuana: Fifty percent of high-schoolers have tried marijuana.

Prescription Medications

Alcohol is the most commonly abused substance among teens. However, nicotine and prescription medication abuse is increasing. Twenty percent of teenagers have tried prescription medications not prescribed to them, such as Adderall or Xanax.

Why Teens Use Drugs: Risk Factors

Teenagers may not know the dangers of substance abuse. They may see occasional use as safe and think they can stop at any time. Other risk factors include:

  • Family history of substance use 
  • Academic pressure
  • Adverse childhood events (ACES)
  • Lack of supervision
  • Mental health disorders
  • Peer pressure
  • Low self-esteem
  • Increased access to substances
  • Going through transitional periods, such as entering puberty or attending a new school

Effects of Substance Misuse in Adolescents

The body sends out a “feel good” chemical called dopamine when using an enjoyable substance. This tells the brain it is worth repeating, which causes cravings. Addiction occurs when cravings don’t stop, withdrawal occurs, and use continues despite negative consequences.

Teenagers who misuse substances can experience drug dependence (substance use disorder). Developmentally, adolescents are at the highest risk for drug dependence and severe addiction. Cravings and withdrawal symptoms create a strong urge to use, which makes it difficult to stop. 

Impact on Brain Development and Growth

The human brain continues developing until about the age of 25. Introducing substances during adolescence changes brain structure, affecting learning, processing emotions, and decision-making. 

  • More risky behaviors: Substance abuse increases risky behaviors like unprotected sex (also referred to as "condomless sex") or dangerous driving.
  • Higher risk for adult health problems: Teenagers who abuse substances have a higher risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and sleep disorders.
  • Mental health disorders: It is common for those with substance abuse disorders to have mental health disorders and vice versa.
  • Impaired academic performance: Substance use affects a teen’s concentration and memory, which may negatively impact their schoolwork. 

Substance Misuse and Mental Health

A study showed that 60% of teens in a community-based substance use treatment program were also diagnosed with a mental health disorder.

Specific Health Risks of Commonly Used Drugs for Teens

Drug and alcohol use can result in substance use disorder as well as the health risks specific to the substance.

Alcohol

Alcohol use can lead to an increased risk of:

  • Liver disease, cirrhosis, and cancer
  • Heart disease and stroke
  • Depression 
  • Lack of focus 
  • Blackouts
  • Accidents
  • Alcohol poisoning
  • Increased risky behavior
  • Violence
  • Suicide

Alcohol Statistics

In the United States, 14.5 million people ages 12 and older have an alcohol use disorder.

Cocaine 

Cocaine carries a risk of overdose and withdrawal. It causes decreased impulse control and poor decision-making. Withdrawal symptoms include restlessness, paranoia, and irritability. Snorting cocaine can cause nosebleeds and loss of smell. Using cocaine can lead to heart attacks, lung problems, strokes, seizures, and comas.

Cocaine Can Be Fatal With First Use

Cocaine is particularly dangerous because it can be fatal even if it is your first time using it.

E-cigarettes (Vaping)

Vaping is attractive to teens because e-cigarettes are often fruit, candy, or mint-flavored. They may contain nicotine or other synthetic substances that damage the brain and lungs. The teenage brain is particularly vulnerable to the harmful effects of nicotine, including anxiety and addiction. 

E-cigarettes come in a variety of shapes and sizes and might be disguised as everyday items such as:

  • USB Flash Drives
  • Pens
  • Hoodie (sweatshirt) strings
  • Backpacks
  • Smartwatches
  • Toys such as fidget spinners
  • Phone cases

Ecstasy (MDMA)

Ecstasy is a stimulant that causes an increased heart rate, blurred vision, and nausea. It can also lead to brain swelling, seizures, and organ damage.

Alternate names for ecstasy include:

Ecstasy is also known as:

  • X
  • XTC
  • Adam
  • E
  • Roll
  • A
  • 007
  • Molly

Inhalants

Inhalants include fumes from gases, glue, aerosols, or solvents that can damage the brain, heart, lungs, kidneys, and liver. Using inhalants even one time can lead to overdose, suffocation, seizures, and death.

Marijuana

Marijuana can impair concentration, worsen mental health, interfere with prescription medications, lead to risky sexual behaviors, or cause dangerous driving. Smoking marijuana can also negatively affect lung health.

Marijuana is often thought of as not being "as bad" as other drugs and, in some cases, even good for you. However, marijuana can have a negative effect on teens in particular, as their brains are still developing. Marijuana use in teens is linked to difficulty with problem-solving, memory and learning issues, impaired coordination, and problems with maintaining attention.

Vaping and Edible Marijuana Use Is on the Rise

Recent data shows a shift from teens smoking marijuana to using vaping devices and edibles instead.

Opioids

Opioids include legal medications such as hydrocodone, oxycontin, fentanyl, and illegal drugs such as heroin. They carry a high risk of overdose and death. 

Out of all overdose deaths, 11.2% occur in those ages 15 to 24 years.

Methamphetamine

Methamphetamine or crystal meth is a highly addictive stimulant that has multiple health consequences, including:

  • Severe weight loss
  • Lack of sleep
  • Dental problems
  • Skin sores
  • Change in brain structure
  • Paranoia and hallucinations
  • Violence 

Disease Transmission Risk

Injecting drugs with shared needles increases the risk for contracting HIV, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C. 

Tobacco

Tobacco can lead to multiple chronic illnesses, including:

  • Lung disease 
  • Cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Vision loss
  • Decreased fertility

Symptoms and Warning Signs of Teenage Drug Addiction

Watching for drug paraphernalia and symptoms of drug abuse can help parents recognize at-risk teens. 

Examples of drug paraphernalia include:

  • Mirrors with white powder
  • Razorblades
  • Straws 
  • Rolled dollar bills
  • Crack pipes and spoons
  • Needles and syringes
  • Rolling paper
  • Bongs

Not All Warning Signs Indicate Drug Use

The following warning signs can be caused by other health problems such as allergies, sinus infections, hormone imbalance, or mental disorders. 

Behavioral warning signs include: 

  • Personality changes 
  • Paranoia
  • Violence
  • Irritability 
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Changes in eating 
  • Withdrawal
  • Poor academic performance
  • Change in friends

Physical signs might include:

  • Red eyes 
  • Persistent cough
  • Dilated pupils
  • Runny nose or nosebleeds
  • Hoarseness
  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Blackouts

Substance Abuse Screening

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends substance abuse screening for children 9 years and older. It’s important to note that screening is not the same as involuntary drug testing.

How Can Parents Prevent Teenage Drug Abuse?

While they may not express it, teenagers value their bond with their parents. Nurturing that bond includes staying involved in their lives through open, honest communication. 

How to Talk to Your Teen About Drug Use

Open communication starts by showing interest and talking to them about everything. This builds trust and respect, making it easier to talk about difficult topics. 

Giving teens your undivided attention, without distractions, helps them feel special and heard. Quality time could be during chores, dinner, walks, car rides, or a fun family game night. 

The following tips can help make sure your talk with your teen is productive for both of you:

  • Stay curious and show interest
  • Ask open-ended questions 
  • Actively listen 
  • Don’t interrupt
  • Give compliments
  • Stay calm
  • Stay up late to chat
  • Chat over their favorite food 

When discussing drug addiction, communicate the negative consequences of drug and alcohol use. Be clear that experimenting with substances is dangerous and you want them to be safe.

Other Strategies

Talking to your teen may not be enough on its own. Other strategies that you can use include:

  • Role model responsible behavior
  • Stay involved with their activities (while still letting them express their boundaries)
  • Meet their friends and their parents
  • Teach them how to make good decisions when under pressure 

Protect Teens From Prescription Medications

Prescription drugs are generally safe but can be harmful when taken in not intended ways. Any time a person takes medication for reasons other than prescribed, it is considered medication abuse. Strategies to protect teens from prescription medications include:

  • Decreasing access to prescription medications, including keeping your own medications in a safe and secure place
  • Lock up controlled substances 
  • Get rid of old medications

Safe Medication Disposal

Do not dispose of medications by flushing them down the toilet or pouring them down the sink. Medications can be crushed and mixed into the trash (to keep them away from children and pets) or returned to your local pharmacy.

Learn more: How to Safely Dispose of Unused Medications

Treatment

Sometimes, teens develop substance abuse problems that need professional help despite your best efforts. Support involves treating withdrawal or underlying mental and emotional concerns, usually with a qualified mental health professional such as a psychiatrist or psychologist.

Treatment for teens experiencing substance use disorder includes a combination of the following:

  • Outpatient clinics
  • Twelve-step programs
  • Inpatient mental health or substance use units 
  • Medications
  • Therapy (individual, group, or family)

Seeking Help


Before deciding on treatment options, talk with your healthcare providers about any concerns you have regarding the following:

  • Underlying health problems
  • Treatment benefits
  • Team member credentials
  • Side effects 
  • Family involvement
  • Schoolwork during treatment
  • Length of treatment
  • Follow-up care

Summary

Experimenting with drugs or alcohol can be tempting for teenagers because they may not understand the dangers. Academic pressure, low self-esteem, and peer pressure are a few factors that increase their risk of substance use.

It’s important for parents to have an open line of communication with their teens and teach them that substances have negative health risks. For teens who may already have a substance use disorder, treatment options are available. 

A Word From Verywell

While drug use may increase the risk of mental health disorders, it’s also important to note that these disorders can lead to substance abuse to self-medicate or numb the emotional pain. If you suspect that a teenager you love is experiencing either, consult a pediatrician or mental health professional as soon as possible. 

Substance Use Helpline

If your teen is struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How is drug intoxication treated?

    Depending on the substance and severity, a tube may be placed through the nose to suction drugs from the stomach. Activated charcoal is given through the tube to bind with the drug to release it from the body, decreasing the amount released into the bloodstream. If an antidote (reversal agents) such as Narcan is available for that substance, it may be given. 

  • Is teenage drug addiction on the rise?

    National surveys from the National Institute on Drug Abuse show adolescent drug use rates have remained steady. However, the survey’s detected a shift in the types of drugs used by teens. Alcohol is still the most often abused substance, but the rates are decreasing. Instead, nicotine use and misuse of prescription medications are on the rise. 

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18 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading