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Updated on April 5, 2021

Most Commonly Used Drugs by Teens

What is the Number One Drug Used by Teens?

People might think of illicit drugs such as cocaine or LSD when asked which drugs are most often used by teens.

In reality, many of the most common drugs young people use are perfectly legal. Tobacco and alcohol are common among teens. Also included in the list of often-used drugs by teens are Adderall, Vicodin, and OxyContin, all three of which are legal when used under a doctor’s prescription.

In addition to the substances above, other commonly abused drugs include marijuana, inhalants, and synthetic marijuana. Over-the-counter medications, painkillers, and even household chemicals are also abused by teens. 

It’s impossible to know exactly what your teen is doing every minute of their day, nor can you be entirely sure that your child would never try something illegal or dangerous. But there are things parents can do to reduce the risks their teens face when it comes to drugs.

Warning Signs of Teen Alcohol Abuse

There are several physical warning signs that indicate a teen is abusing alcohol, including:

  • Red or bloodshot eyes
  • Persistent cough
  • Increased fatigue or problems sleeping
  • Unexplained increase or decrease in weight
  • Unexplained injuries
  • Frequent headaches
  • Sensitivity to sound
  • Nausea
  • Slurred speech and other communication problems
  • Lack of concentration
  • Blackouts

Social and emotional signs of alcohol abuse include:

  • Withdrawal from family
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyed hobbies or activities
  • Depression
  • Mood Swings
  • Change in friend group
  • Problems at school
  • Problems with the law
  • Breaking curfew
  • Secretive behavior
  • Running away

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How Does Underage Drinking Affect Development?

Excessive drinking at any age is risky. Most health experts agree that a moderate amount of alcohol consumed by adults is safe, but this is not the case for children and teens. Underage drinking is unsafe and affects development.

Several studies have shown that alcohol consumption has a dangerous effect on the developing brains of children, teens, and young adults. Alcohol also negatively impacts learning and memory in teens. Childhood and adolescence are important times in brain development and introducing alcohol into the equation is dangerous.

There is also evidence that the earlier someone starts drinking alcohol, the more likely he or she is to develop a serious problem with substance abuse and addiction later in life.

Misusing alcohol at any age is unhealthy. The well-known dangers of substance use are even riskier when done by a young person. But using alcohol in any way, even in moderation, is risky for children and teens.

Risks & Effects of Underage Drinking

The risks and effects of underage drinking include:

  • Poor school performance
  • Social problems
  • Hostility
  • Legal problems
  • Hangovers and other physical effects of drinking
  • High-risk sexual activity
  • Physical and sexual violence, as a victim or perpetrator
  • Homicide and/or suicide
  • Vehicle and other types of accidents
  • Memory problems
  • Alcohol poisoning
  • Misuse or abuse of or addiction to other substances
  • Issues with brain development

Binge drinking, which tends to be more common among teens and young adults, increases many of these risks.

7 Other Common Drugs Used by Teens

Seven other drugs teens commonly abuse include:

1. Marijuana

Marijuana is the most commonly abused drug. It contains the psychoactive and mind-altering chemical delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and other related compounds. 

Using marijuana typically results in a relaxed state-of-mind. Depending on the person, the drug can either increase or decrease feelings of anxiety, depression, and paranoia.

2. Inhalants

Inhalants are solvents or other materials that produce an inhalable vapor.

Most inhalants, including whippits, affect the body’s central nervous system (CNS) and slow down brain activity by cutting off oxygen to the brain. This causes a euphoric effect. 

While the exact way that nitrous oxide works is unknown, researchers believe that it hits the body in a few different ways. It depresses all sensations—including pain, hearing, and touch—and prevents the normal functioning of some of the brain’s emotional centers.

3. Hallucinogens

Hallucinogens are synthetic and organic drugs that cause hallucinations.

Hallucinogens are either synthetically produced, like LSD, or occur naturally, like shrooms and peyote. They produce visual and auditory hallucinations, feelings of detachment from one's self and environment, and a distorted perception of time and space.

4. Stimulants

Stimulant drugs raise physiological activity and stimulate the nervous system.

Stimulants include illicit drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine, as well as prescription drugs like Adderall and Ritalin. Prolonged use of stimulants can have significant negative effects, including heart damage, memory loss, and psychotic behavior.

5. Prescription Drugs

Prescription medications are legal under doctor’s supervision, but often misused by those without a prescription. Opioids and stimulants (like Adderall) are examples of commonly misused prescription medications. 

6. Opioids

Opioids (narcotics) are a group of prescription drugs that relieve intense pain. There are three different forms of opioids, including natural, synthetic, and semi-synthetic. These drugs are highly addictive and can lead to overdose and death when taken in high doses.

7. Benzodiazepines

Benzodiazepines (benzos) are a group of drugs that produce sedating effects in the body. All benzodiazepines calm brain activity, slow down the central nervous system (CNS), and trigger euphoria.

Benzodiazepine drugs, including valium and xanax, are often prescribed to patients with anxiety.

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Why Do Teens Use Drugs?

There are many reasons why teens use drugs.

Some face peer pressure to use drugs. Others enter into it more independently and use drugs as a way to rebel against their parents and/or other authorities. In some cases, teens use drugs to self-medicate and alleviate the symptoms of a mental health condition.

In general, the most common reasons teens experience with and/or abuse drugs include:

  • Fitting in
  • Socializing
  • Dealing with life experiences that are out of their control, such as a parents’ divorce or death in the family
  • Emotional pain

In many cases, teens use drugs for more than one reason. They might sample a drug with peers in a social setting, but continue using the drug once they realize the drug provides temporary relief from anxiety, social pressures, and adolescent drama.

Even teens not prone to rebellion might be pressured by their peers into trying something, only to find it appealing. It doesn’t take long to develop an addiction once a young person has tried a drug. Parents should never assume it won’t happen to their family or that their child would never try drugs.

However, certain circumstances do make drug use more likely and include:

  • Family history of substance abuse
  • History of risk-taking behavior
  • Mental or behavioral health conditions
  • History of trauma
  • Low self-esteem
  • Difficulty forming bonds with peers

Warning Signs of Teen Drug Abuse

Warning signs of teen drug abuse include:

  • Mood changes
  • Academic problems
  • Change in social groups
  • Reluctance to spend time with family and long-term friends
  • Decreased energy
  • Negative attitude
  • Physical and mental changes
  • Finding hidden drugs or drug paraphernalia

Risks & Dangers of Teen Drug Use

Misuse of prescription drugs and any use of illicit drugs is dangerous at any age and regardless of the specific substance. Drug use causes impairment, can lead to addiction and is potentially fatal. 

Some of the risks and dangers of commonly used drugs include:

  • Inhalants: Damage to heart, liver, lungs, kidneys, and brain
  • Marijuana: Memory loss, learning problems, paranoia, psychosis
  • Cocaine: Heart attack, seizure, stroke
  • Ecstasy: Heart and liver failure
  • Methamphetamine or meth: Psychotic behavior
  • Opioids: Respiratory distress, death
  • Nicotine: Addiction, cancer

Does Your Teen Need Addiction Treatment? 

It’s common for teens to experience and test their limits. This is especially true for those whose friends do so. Ideally, any teen who samples drugs or alcohol will recognize the risks and their inability to properly deal with substances at their age.

However, if your teen’s use of alcohol or drugs is ongoing and problematic, you have options. It’s important to speak to your children about drugs and alcohol before they find themselves in a dangerous or difficult position.

It is never too early to address the issue if you believe your child is drinking alcohol or using drugs. If your teen is exhibiting any signs of abuse or addiction, it’s extremely important to seek addiction treatment. 

For many families, professional help is the best option for dealing with underage alcohol and drug use.

Addiction Treatment Options for Teens

There are many addiction treatment options available for teens that can be used alone or together to deal with drug and alcohol use. Teens can seek inpatient or outpatient support at a treatment center or other facility. For example:

Behavioral Approaches

  • Adolescent Community Reinforcement Approach (A-CRA) — Replaces negative influences in a teen’s life with healthier social, familial, and educational reinforcement.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) — Helps teens learn new behaviors and habits to replace drug and alcohol use.
  • Contingency Management (CM) — Uses immediate and tangible reinforcement via low-cost incentives to modify substance abuse.
  • Motivational Enhancement Therapy (MET) — Helps teens resolve ambivalence toward treatment and abstaining from drug use using motivational interviewing.
  • 12-step Facilitation Therapy — Increases the likelihood of a teen to participate in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA) programs by stressing the unmanageability of life and the need for abstinence.

Family-Based Approaches

  • Brief Strategic Family Therapy (BSFT) — Acknowledges one person’s problem behavior stems from an unhealthy family system. Therapists work one-on-one with family members and observe them interacting as a group.
  • Family Behavior Therapy (FBT) — Combines behavioral contracting with contingency management to address substance abuse and other issues.
  • Functional Family Therapy (FFT) — Combines BSFT with behavioral techniques to improve communication, conflict resolution, problem-solving, and parenting.
  • Multidimensional Family Therapy (MDFT) — Combines family and community-based treatment to foster competency of the addicted person’s loved ones and collaboration with societal systems.
  • Multisystemic Therapy (MST) — Combines family and community-based treatment and views substance abuse as a result of favorable attitudes toward drugs, family history, communication issues, problems in school, criminal subculture, and other factors.

Addiction Medications

  • Opioid Use Disorders — Buprenorphine, Methadone, Naltrexone
  • Alcohol Use Disorders — Acamprosate, Disulfiram, Naltrexone

Recovery Support Services

  • Assertive Continuing Care (ACC) — Home-based continuing health care to prevent relapse, typically used after A-CRA.
  • Mutual Help Groups — 12-step programs that provide ongoing support and access to resources.
  • Peer Recovery Support Services: Community centers and other services providing access to treatment in one-on-one and group settings.
  • Recovery High Schools — Schools designed to help students in recovery return to a recovery-focused environment.

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Resources

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National Institute on Drug Abuse. “What Drugs Are Most Frequently Used by Adolescents?” Drugabuse.gov, 2019, https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/principles-adolescent-substance-use-disorder-treatment-research-based-guide/frequently-asked-questions/what-drugs-are-most-frequently-used-by-adolescents.

CDC. “CDC - Fact Sheets-Underage Drinking - Alcohol.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2018, https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/underage-drinking.htm.

“Alcohol Use & the Developing Teenage Brain | McLean Hospital.” www.mcleanhospital.org, https://www.mcleanhospital.org/essential/what-you-need-know-about-alcohol-and-developing-teenage-brain.

“Warning Signs | Youth.gov.” Youth.gov, 2019, https/www.youth.gov/youth-topics/substance-abuse/warning-signs-adolescent-substance-abuse.

Mayo Clinic Staff. “Teen Drug Abuse: Help Your Teen Avoid Drugs.” Mayo Clinic, 2019, https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/tween-and-teen-health/in-depth/teen-drug-abuse/art-20045921.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Evidence-Based Approaches to Treating Adolescent Substance Use Disorders.” Drugabuse.gov, 2018, https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/principles-adolescent-substance-use-disorder-treatment-research-based-guide/evidence-based-approaches-to-treating-adolescent-substance-use-disorders.

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