The 10 Biggest Teen Health Risks

Teenagers today are exposed to more risks than ever before. From online bullying, school shootings, and opioids, teens have higher levels of stress than in years past and increasing rates of suicide.

For parents and caregivers, this means having difficult conversations with their increasingly independent children about making smart choices about health and safety. If you're one of those caregivers, before you sit down to talk with your teen, arm yourself with facts about the top teen health issues as well as resources to help navigate the sometimes stormy waters of adolescence.

Teenager (16-18) smoking hand rolled cigarette
Barbara Peacock / Getty Images

Automobile Accidents

Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of teen death in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that every day seven teens between the ages of 16 and 19 die from motor vehicle injuries and even more are treated in emergency rooms for serious injuries. Teens age 16 to 19 have a much greater risk of death or injury in a car crash than any other age group.

Before your teen gets behind the wheel—or becomes a passenger with a teen driver—it’s important to understand the biggest dangers that lead to teen car crashes and create a plan to ensure your teen is going to be safe behind the wheel. Factors that contribute to teen car accidents include:

  • Inexperience: Teens are less able to recognize dangerous situations and have less-developed driving reflexes than more experienced drivers. 
  • Speeding: Teens are more likely to speed and to drive too closely to the car in front of them.
  • Seat-belt use: Fewer than 60% of high school students wear seat belts every time they get in a car. In fact, among young drivers who died in car accidents in 2017, about half were not wearing a seat belt.
  • Drunk driving: Statistics show one in six teens have ridden in a car with a driver who is under the influence of alcohol and one in 20 admit to getting behind the wheel after drinking.

Suicide

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among adolescents. Between 2007 and 2017, rates of teen suicide increased by 56%. Statistics estimate that roughly one in 11 high school students attempt suicide.

Contributing factors for suicide include loneliness, depression, family problems, and substance abuse. The issues are complex and aren’t a result of one or two factors. Teens who have good communication with at least one adult are less likely to engage in risky behaviors and less likely to become depressed.

Learn to recognize the warning signs of suicidal thoughts in teens, which include:

  • Feeling like a burden
  • Being isolated
  • Increasing anxiety
  • Feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
  • Increased substance use
  • Looking for a way to access lethal means
  • Increasing anger or rage
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Expressing hopelessness
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Talking or posting about wanting to die
  • Making plans for suicide

If you suspect your child may be thinking of harming themself, ask if they are having thoughts of suicide, express your concerns about their behavior, listen attentively without judgment, let them know they have been heard and are not alone, and guide them to professional help.

Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If your child is in immediate danger, call 911.

Gun Violence

While school shootings get the majority of news attention, they make up just 1.2% of firearm fatalities in school-aged children. Gang violence and drive-by shootings are a problem in many cities in the United States. African American children and teens are more than eight times more likely to die from firearm homicide than their white counterparts.

Regardless of your personal stance on guns, it is important to talk to your children about gun safety. If you keep firearms in your home, be sure to keep them locked up and unloaded. Research shows roughly one of three handguns guns is kept loaded and unlocked in the home and most children know where their parents keep their guns.

The majority of firearm injuries and deaths in children and adolescents are related to guns in the home.Homicide by firearm is the third leading cause of accidental death for young adults aged 15 to 24.

Whether a child has first-hand experience with gun violence or learns about a mass shooting on the news, the opportunity to discuss this important topic with your teen will likely arise. The American Psychology Association offers the following tips for families: 

  • Limit news coverage of traumatic events.
  • Listen to your child's concerns.
  • Try to put their fears into proportion to the real risk, which is small.
  • Reassure your teen that adults are doing everything they can to make their school, home, and neighborhood safe.

Bullying

Roughly one in three adolescents is impacted by bullying—a form of aggressive behavior in which someone intentionally and repeatedly causes another person injury or discomfort. Bullying can be verbal, social, physical, or done online in the form of cyberbullying and most commonly occurs at school. Approximately 30% of teens admit to bullying others.

Persistent bullying can cause feelings of isolation, rejection, exclusion, and despair, as well as depression and anxiety, which can contribute to suicidal behavior; however, the majority of teens who are bullied do not attempt suicide. While any teen can be a victim of bullying, LGBTQ youth are at a heightened risk of being targeted.

Despite many teens experiencing bullying, only 20% to 30% of teens who are bullied report it to an adult. Signs your teen may be experiencing bullying include:

  • Coming home with unexplained cuts, bruises, or scratches.
  • Making excuses to avoid school or resisting going to school or riding the school bus.
  • Complaining of frequent headaches, stomachaches, or other physical ailments, having trouble sleeping or having frequent bad dreams.
  • Losing interest in schoolwork or suddenly doing poorly in school.
  • Appearing sad, moody, teary, anxious, or depressed when they come home from school.

If you suspect your teen is being bullied, it can help to broach the subject indirectly by asking about friends or discussing bullying in the news. Most important is to keep the lines of communication open and provide a supportive environment. Don't downplay the situation by telling your teen to just get over it or toughen up.

Sex, Pregnancy, and STIs

Having the sex talk with your child can be uncomfortable, but it is important to make sure your teen understands the risks of sexual activity, how to practice safe sex, and the importance of consent. The health consequences of teen sex—namely pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections—can have lifelong impacts. Arming yourself with facts can help facilitate a productive conversation.

Teens are at an increased risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection than older adults. An estimated one-fifth of new HIV diagnoses each year are young adults between 13 and 24 and half of all reported STIs occur in those 15 to 24. What's more, 46% of sexually active teens surveyed did not use a condom the last time they had sex.

On the bright side, the teen pregnancy rate has declined in recent years from its high in the 1980s and 1990s. In 2012, only about 29 per 1,000 women between 15 and 19 became pregnant. By 2016, that figure dropped even further to 18 per 1,000, according to the CDC. This decline is due to both an increase in teens using birth control and practicing abstinence.

Another important sex topic to discuss with your teen is consent—the agreement between two parties regarding sexual activity. Failure to get consent from a partner can lead to legal consequences. Explain to your child the importance of communication, setting boundaries, and respecting their partners.

Make sure your child understands that pressuring someone to engage in activities they are not ready for or taking advantage of someone who is drunk or drugged is never OK. Likewise, if a teen is feeling pressured or uncomfortable in a situation it is important to speak up and leave if necessary.

Keep the lines of communication open so that your teen knows they can always come to you if they get into trouble or have any questions.

Tobacco Use

Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S. and nearly all nicotine addictions start in young adults. By their senior year of high school, more than two-thirds of kids have tried or are regularly using tobacco products.

While the use of cigarettes and smokeless tobacco products has been in sharp decline over the past 25 years, the use of electronic nicotine delivery systems has grown exponentially. Initially, vaping was believed to be safer than smoking cigarettes; however, a new lung disease known as e-cigarette, or vaping, product use-associated lung injury (EVALI) was identified in 2019.

According to data from the 2018 National Youth Tobacco Survey, 27.1% of high school students and 7.2% of middle school students reported using any tobacco product in the past 30 days, representing an increase over the previous year. During that period, the use of e-cigarettes by youth increased by 77.8% with one in five high schoolers admitting to vaping regularly.

The American Lung Associations offers the following tips for talking to your kids about smoking and vaping: 

  • Tell your teen honestly and directly that you do not want them to smoke cigarettes, vape, or chew tobacco.
  • Educate yourself and your teen on the harm of tobacco products.
  • Set a good example by not smoking or using tobacco. If you currently smoke, quit. 

If you catch your teen smoking or vaping, avoid threats and ultimatums, and instead talk with them to find out why they are using nicotine and help them to find healthier ways to cope. 

Alcohol

Underage drinking can lead to many problems, including difficulty at school with academics and peers, poor judgment and decision making, legal troubles, and health problems. According to a 2019 survey, 30% of high school seniors report drinking alcohol in the last month and 14% admit to binge drinking, defined as consuming four or more alcoholic beverages per occasion for women or 5 or more drinks per occasion for men. The CDC reports more than 4,000 underage teens die from excessive drinking each year and there are close to 120,000 emergency room visits among 12- to 21-year-olds related to alcohol use.

Having an ongoing discussion with your teen about underage drinking is important. Encourage a two-way conversation with your teen and clearly state your expectations. Ask open-ended questions that encourage your child to tell you how they feel without lecturing.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism advises keeping the lines of communication open and emphasizing some key points:

  • Alcohol is a depressant that slows the body and mind.
  • Being under the influence of alcohol impairs coordination and slows reaction time.
  • Drinking impairs vision, thinking, and judgment, which can lead you to do something you would not do sober.
  • People often misjudge how impaired they are after drinking alcohol.
  • It takes between two and three hours for a single drink to leave your system. 
  • Alcohol affects young people differently than adults and may lead to long-lasting intellectual effects in still-maturing brains.

While most parents do not want their teens to drink, it is important to keep lines of communication open, especially when it comes to drunk driving. Emphasize to your teen they should never get behind a wheel after drinking or get into a car with a driver who has been drinking. Let them know they can always call you if they need a ride, no questions asked.

Drugs

Recreational drug use is a serious health risk for teens. Roughly half of all high school students report having tried marijuana, one-fifth have taken prescription medication that was not prescribed to them, 6% have tried cocaine, and 3% of teen males have used performance-enhancing steroids.

Opioids present the largest drug-related health risk for teens, with more than 4,000 young adults ages 15 to 25 overdosing and dying each year. A highly addictive group of drugs, opioids include prescription pain medications OxyContin and Percocet (oxycodone), Vicodin (hydrocodone), and codeine and the street drugs heroin and fentanyl. Anyone can become addicted to these drugs.

Opioid addiction can have major life-threatening consequences. Many people start out taking prescription tablets, become addicted, and turn to heroin because it is less expensive. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration recommends talking with your teen often about the dangers of opioids and other drugs. Encourage your child to have an exit plan if they are offered drugs, such as texting a code word to a family member, and practice how to say no assertively.

If you suspect your child is addicted to opioids or abusing drugs, seek professional help. Talk to your child's doctor or school counselor or contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Eating Disorders

Eating disorders frequently first appear during adolescence. Often misunderstood as a lifestyle choice, eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder actually are serious and sometimes fatal illnesses that alter eating behaviors, thoughts, and emotions.

Both sexes can develop eating disorders, however, rates are higher in girls than boys. If your child seems preoccupied with food, their weight, and the shape of their body it may signal an eating disorder. Other signs to watch for include:

  • Frequently stepping on the scale or taking body measurements
  • Restricting food intake
  • Extreme weight loss or weight gain
  • Spending extra time in the bathroom due to throwing up after meals or taking laxatives or diuretics
  • Chronic sore throat, hoarse voice, or swollen neck glands from vomiting
  • Sneaking food or eating in secret
  • Eating large portions very quickly
  • Anxiety, depression, and mood swings

If your teen is showing signs of having an eating disorder, it is important to seek out treatment, which may include psychotherapy, medications, and nutritional classes provided on an outpatient or inpatient basis. To find resources in your area contact, the National Association of Eating Disorders helpline at (800) 931-2237 or chat online.

Obesity

An estimated 20% of teens in the United States meet the medical definition of obese: a body mass index (BMI) at or above the 95th percentile for children of the same age and sex. The health consequences of childhood obesity are serious—type 2 diabetes, heart disease, asthma, and fatty liver disease. It also can lead to psychological problems including anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and bullying. Childhood obesity also sets the stage for obesity and health problems in adulthood.

Factors associated with excessive weight gain in teens include consuming high-calorie, low-nutrient foods and beverages, a lack of physical activity, sedentary activities such as watching television or playing video games and sleep routines. In fact, about 87% of high school students do not eat the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables a day,and more than 25% eat more than two servings of high-fat products a day. And about 33% of high school students do not get enough exercise and only 36% percent are enrolled in daily physical education programs.

Weight issues during the teenage years can be complicated to approach. Most teens go through growth spurts during these years and teens often gain weight before they grow taller. Many teens feel uncomfortable in their new bodies and can be sensitive to discussions about weight.

If you are concerned your teen is gaining too much weight, check your child's BMI percentile by age with the CDC's BMI Percentile Calculator for Child and Teen or ask at your child's next physical. A BMI percentile of 85% is considered overweight, while 95% is obese.

The treatment for obesity is weight loss and lifestyle changes including diet and exercise are recommended first. It can help to see a nutritionist to develop a balanced eating plan that meets the Dietary Guidelines for America. Focusing on healthy eating as a family can help support your teen without causing them to feel singled out.

A Word From Verywell

The teen years can be a challenge for many parents. As children grow more independent and form new friendships, it becomes more difficult to monitor their behavior than when they were younger. At the same time, teens need guidance navigating peer pressure and making smart choices so it is essential to keep the lines of communication open. Many parents find having these talks with their teens is more productive when the conversation flows naturally while doing something else, like playing a board game, taking a walk, or in the car. Arming yourself with facts in advance can help facilitate a productive discussion. At the end of the day, the most important thing is for teens to know they are loved and cared about and they always have someone to come to with problems. Ensuring your teen is well-informed and better-equipped to make healthy choices on their own can give you both peace of mind.

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Article Sources
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