Teen Drug Abuse & Addiction

Nearly two-thirds of teens have tried alcohol by the time they graduate high school. While many adolescents won't go on to become heavy users, the effects of teen drug and alcohol abuse can be long-term and severe.
Evidence Based
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Why Do Teens Use Drugs?

Being a teenager in the United States is difficult these days. Growing up in the digital era, they are exposed to a whole new set of problems that many parents, teachers, and other adults have difficulty understanding or relating to.

This can cause teenagers to experience intense feelings of isolation, loneliness, and confusion. These are just some of the many reasons teens use alcohol and other drugs. Others include:

  • To fit in with others
  • Peer pressure
  • Stress relief
  • Curiosity
  • Self-medicating untreated mental health issues
  • Genetic predisposition
  • Addiction

Nearly half of all high schoolers have tried marijuana, and approximately two-thirds have consumed alcohol by the time they graduate.

The most commonly abused drugs by teen include:

Risk Factors of Teen Drug Abuse

Some teenagers are more at risk of developing an alcohol or drug problem than others. Common risk factors that can lead to alcoholism include:

  • Family member(s) who currently have or had a substance abuse problem in the past
  • Problems with sexual and gender identity, or being rejected by family and/or friends
  • Poor parenting and discipline or other family issues
  • History of sexual abuse
  • Surrounding themselves with peers who use substances
  • Poor performance in school
  • Feeling disconnected from school
  • Low self-esteem and confidence
  • Mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder
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Effects of Drugs on Teens

The effects of teen drug use range from short term to long term and from mild to deadly. In many cases, it is difficult for teenagers to understand the consequences of their actions. That’s why education, from parents, teachers, and older friends is crucial to keeping the next generation safe.

Some effects of teen drug use include:

  • Suspension or expulsion from school
  • Arrest
  • Loss of job
  • Poor judgement
  • Financial problems
  • Loss of friendships
  • Strained family relationships
  • Illness or injury
  • Addiction
  • Risky sexual behavior
  • Mental health disorders
  • Mood swings
  • Co-occurring disorders
  • Health problems
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Disrupted brain development
  • Car accidents
  • Overdose
  • Death

Drug and alcohol abuse disrupts the development of the brain. It impairs memory and teenagers’ abilities to respond to emotional and stressful situations. Therefore, substance abuse increases the chances that a young person will develop a mental health disorder.

While it’s difficult for scientists to prove that substance use disorder (SUD) causes mental health problems, the two have been linked in many studies.

Teenagers who abuse substances are more likely to have mental health issues, and teenagers with mental health issues are more likely to lean on substances as a way to cope with their problems. This is a recurring process that makes it very difficult for teenagers to develop a healthy lifestyle without early intervention.

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Teen Alcohol Abuse

The majority of teens who experiment with alcohol in high school will not develop an addiction or try illicit drugs. While recent research shows that alcohol use among high schoolers is declining, it is still important to continue preventative and educational efforts.

Binge drinking, which is when someone drinks five or more alcoholic drinks in one sitting, is down 10 to 30 percent among high schoolers. However, high schoolers who do binge drink often are more likely to develop an alcohol addiction later on. This is because the teenage brain is still developing, making it more susceptible to addiction.

Alcohol is the most frequently abused substance among teenagers. Alcohol abuse has been proven to be extremely dangerous in many situations. Drunk driving accidents kill thousands of teens each year.

Short-term effects of teen alcohol abuse include:

  • Impaired judgment and decision making ability
  • Inability to recognize inappropriate or risky behavior
  • Higher chances of engaging in unhealthy or unsafe behavior (such as drunk driving, aggression or violence, unprotected sex, etc.)
  • Inability to recognize dangerous situations
  • Behavioral health problems

Underage drinking during the teenage years can also lead to serious long-term effects, such as:

  • Impaired learning ability and information processing
  • Increased risk of developing an alcohol use disorder (AUD)
  • Increased risk of developing mental health disorders
  • Increased risk of developing long term health issues such as heart disease and memory loss
Graphic of 3 different types of medication bottles and pills.

Teen Prescription Drug Abuse

After alcohol and marijuana, prescription drugs are the most commonly abused substances among teens. When abused, they can become addictive and cause numerous short term and long term health problems.

Nearly 17 percent of high school students have taken prescription drugs without a doctor’s prescription.

Some of the most commonly abused prescription drugs include:

Using prescription drugs inconsistently to a doctor’s instructions creates several risks, including adverse drug interactions, seizures, drug addiction, overdose, and death. From 2014 to 2015, the number of overdose deaths increased by 19 percent to 770 teens, many of them from prescription medications.

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Signs of Teen Drug Abuse

Many teens that experiment with drugs and alcohol will turn out fine and live healthy lives. However, others will go on to develop long term addictions and other serious health issues.

If you suspect that a teenager is abusing drugs or alcohol frequently, look for the following signs:

  • Sudden mood swings and changes in behavior
  • Getting in trouble for misbehaving
  • Declining grades
  • Being late or absent to school
  • Inability to stop drinking once they start
  • Hiding drugs, alcohol, or paraphernalia
  • Feeling tired, disinterested, or angry with life
  • Not stopping using drugs or alcohol despite getting in trouble
  • Borrowing and stealing money
  • Giving up old hobbies, sports, activities, or friends for drugs or alcohol
  • Using eye drops or mouthwash to hide symptoms of drug or alcohol use
  • Health problems
  • Getting in trouble with the police
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Teen Drug Abuse Treatment

The majority of substance use disorders (SUD) begin in the teenage years and continue into adulthood. It can be very difficult for teens to overcome addiction. Seeking help is the best way to increase the likelihood of recovery.

The best type of treatment for teen drug use and abuse is prevention. Education and honest communication go a long way in helping teenagers learn about the risks of drugs and alcohol. It’s important to teach them the power of saying no and how to enjoy life without relying on substances.

There are a variety of treatment facilities and options available for teenagers suffering from substance abuse problems. Your school counselor is a great place to start looking for professional help.

There are also addiction treatment centers that focus specifically on helping teens. Teen-Anon, Alateen, and other communities provide support groups for teens.

Some of the most effective treatment types for SUD and AUD include:

The most important thing to remember is that teens need support before, during, and after substance or alcohol abuse treatment.


NIDA. "Monitoring the Future Survey: High School and Youth Trends." National Institute on Drug Abuse, 18 Dec. 2019, https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/monitoring-future-survey-high-school-youth-trends.

Prescription for Disaster: How Teens Abuse Medicine. Drug Enforcement Administration, 2018.

“Brain and Addiction.” NIDA for Teens, National Institutes of Health, 1 June 2019, teens.drugabuse.gov/drug-facts/brain-and-addiction.

“Alcohol.” NIDA for Teens, National Institutes of Health, 1 Jan. 2019, teens.drugabuse.gov/drug-facts/alcohol.

“Teen Substance Use & Risks.” CDC 24/7, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 10 Feb. 2020, www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/fasd/features/teen-substance-use.html.

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Updated on: August 5, 2020
Michael Bayba
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Medically Reviewed: March 19, 2020
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Annamarie Coy,
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