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What is teen substance abuse?

Many teens try alcohol, tobacco, or drugs. Some teens try these substances only a few times and stop. Others can't control their urges or cravings for them. This is substance abuse.

Teens may try a number of substances, including cigarettes, alcohol, household chemicals (inhalants), prescription and over-the-counter medicines, and illegal drugs. Teens use alcohol more than any other substance. Marijuana is the illegal drug that teens use most often.

Why do teens abuse drugs and alcohol?

Teens may use a substance for many reasons. They may do it because:

  • They want to fit in with friends or certain groups.
  • They like the way it makes them feel.
  • They believe it makes them more grown up.

Teens tend to try new things and take risks, so they may take drugs or drink alcohol because it seems exciting.

Teens with family members who have problems with alcohol or other drugs are more likely to have serious substance abuse problems. Also, teens who feel that they are not connected to or valued by their parents are at greater risk. Teens with poor self-esteem or emotional or mental health problems, such as depression, also are at increased risk.

What problems can teen substance abuse cause?

Substance abuse can lead to serious problems such as poor schoolwork, loss of friends, problems at home, and lasting legal problems. Alcohol and drug abuse is a leading cause of teen death or injury related to car crashes, suicides, violence, and drowning. Substance abuse can increase the risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV, because of unprotected sex. Even occasional alcohol use by a teen increases the risk for future alcohol and drug problems.

Even casual use of certain drugs can cause severe health problems, such as an overdose or brain damage. Many illegal drugs today are made in home labs, so they can vary greatly in strength. These drugs also may contain bacteria, dangerous chemicals, and other unsafe substances.

What are the signs of substance abuse?

It's important to be aware of the signs that your teen may be abusing alcohol, drugs, or other substances. Some of the signs include:

  • Red eyes and health complaints, such as being overly tired. If your teen often uses over-the-counter eyedrops, he or she may be trying to cover up red eyes caused by smoking marijuana.
  • Less interest in school, a drop in grades, and skipping classes or school.
  • New friends who have little interest in their families or school activities.
  • Chemical-soaked rags or papers, which may mean that your teen is inhaling vapors. Other signs of this are paint or other stains on your teen's clothing, hands, or face.

What should you do if you find out that your teen is using alcohol, tobacco, or drugs?

If your teen is using alcohol, tobacco, or drugs, take it seriously. One of the most important things you can do is to talk openly with your teen about the problem. Urge him or her to do the same. Try not to use harsh, judging words. Be as supportive as you can during this time.

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: July 20, 2012
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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