Teenage Drug Use And Abuse: What Is The Number One Drug Used By Teens?

Updated August 28, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Tanya Harell

Teenage drug use is not a new phenomenon, but it is certainly a cause for concern. Teenagers today are often overwhelmed by stress, most commonly due to school, peer pressure, and trouble at home. Many teenagers turn to substance abuse to cope with these stressors. Although this can be a frightening time for parents, there are addiction treatment options available for teenagers, and a history of drug use—or the onset of drug use—does not mean a death sentence for the teenager or their future. Instead, drug use is a strong call to action and signals the need for addiction treatment and mental health intervention.

What Are the Warning Signs of Teen Drug Use?

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The warning signs of teen substance abuse can often be mistaken for behavior associated with being a teenager. These symptoms include a dramatic increase in silly behavior, irritability, a loss of motivation, an increasing desire for privacy, the advent of new words in their vocabulary, unexplained appetite increases, memory difficulties, and theft. Although all of these may not be present in a teenager who has begun using drugs, many of them can signal a change in your teenager, including drug or alcohol abuse.

Determining the difference between standard teenage behavior and symptoms of drug use can be difficult. As teenagers move away from adolescence, they are exposed to new experiences, new friends, and new ways of thinking, but retain neurological behavior that identifies safety and logic as less important than an adult’s brain. Consequently, and in part due to hormonal changes taking place during this time, many teenagers begin acting more sullen, irritable, and private. If communication has become impossible, and learning from directly from the teenager is impossible, family therapy or parent therapy could help, as it could help break down some of the barriers leading to poor communication and could improve the family unit’s mental health as a whole.

Drug Abuse: Why Are Teenagers Prone?

Although adults are certainly not immune to drug use and abuse, teenagers seem to be particularly susceptible to the lure of substance abuse. In some cases, substance abuse focuses heavily on alcohol consumption and never veers into illegal prescription drug or narcotic use, but in others, substance abuse focuses entirely on illegal drug use—whether that is illegal prescription drug use, marijuana use, or the use of other illegal drugs. Mental health, hormone surges, and environmental pressures can all play a role in a teenager’s decision to partake of illegal substances.

Teenage Drug Use: Prescription Drugs

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The most common prescription drugs that are abused are Adderall and Vicodin, both drugs that may initially be prescribed for teenagers and young adults. Adderall is most commonly known and prescribed for ADHD and ADD, which is a disorder affecting increasing numbers of children and adults. Adderall may be purchased through peers with a prescription, dealers, or may be used via a teenager’s own prescription—in any case, though, abuse of the drug is both dangerous and illegal, with serious consequences for any teenager dealing with addiction. When taken too liberally, Adderall can cause intense highs and feelings of invincibility, which can lead teenagers to make dangerous decisions. Nausea, vomiting, headache, dry mouth, uncontrolled shaking, and difficulty sleeping are all symptoms of Adderall abuse, and because the drug is an amphetamine, addiction is possible. Addiction treatment for Adderall could be handled through therapy and medical intervention, or it may require the use of an in-patient facility designed to combat addiction on a daily, even minute-to-minute basis.

Vicodin is the second most common prescription drug abused by teenagers. In sharp contrast to Adderall, Vicodin is a pain killer and is designed to relax and soothe. Vicodin has a high potential for addiction, and as a consequence, the United States government placed restrictions on its use. Nevertheless, Vicodin abuse has persisted, including abuse among teenagers. Vicodin is a pain killer, and overuse of the drug can lead to dizziness and fainting spells. As an opioid, Vicodin is highly addictive, and even short-term use can have serious consequences. Overdose is the most common source of danger associated with Vicodin, and overdose symptoms include nausea, low blood pressure, a weak pulse, confusion, and inadequate air intake. Addiction treatment for Adderall ranges from the high end of addiction treatment (an inpatient facility able to combat daily struggles with addiction) to the mild spectrum of addiction (drug abuse therapy and lifestyle interventions).

The Number One Drug Used by Teens

Alcohol is consistently the most common substance abused by teenagers, but marijuana is the drug most commonly used by teenagers—particularly those in high school. Although marijuana has been approved for recreational use in some areas, recreational use requires that individuals be an adult, and is not available to individuals under the age of 21. Consequently, if marijuana is being used by anyone under the age of 21, it is still considered an illegal drug. The National Institute on Drug Abuse found that marijuana use exceeded all other drugs; of the high school seniors using illicit substances, 36% were using marijuana, while the next most significant drug abused was Adderall, at 8.7%.

The most common means of consuming marijuana among teenagers is through the use of synthetic cannabinoids, called K2 or Spice. Although marijuana is not necessarily safe to use, K2 and Spice actually present more dangers than the natural compounds found within marijuana. Initially created in a lab to study the effects of marijuana, K2 and Spice were co-opted by dealers, and a spike of these dangerous substances occurred in 2011. While marijuana use is not ideal, it does not present with many of the same concerns that synthetic cannabinoids do, including the presence of a racing heart, seizures, psychosis, hallucinations, paranoia, shortness of breath, and chest pain. These synthetic drugs were linked to fatal symptoms in Connecticut in 2018, wherein users experienced bloody noses, bloody urine, coughed-up blood, and had internal bleeding. Although they are marketed as “synthetic marijuana,” to link to the same effects of marijuana, K2 and Spice are synthetic chemical cocktails with no regulation or consistency and can present a very real hazard to teenagers.

Risk Factors for Teenage Drug Use

Although being a teenager or young adult is, on its own, a risk factor for substance abuse, there are additional factors that could play a role in the development of addiction, whether that addiction involves seemingly innocuous addiction symptoms or outright substance abuse. The most prominent risk factors for teenagers include:

  • Availability/Access. Teenagers who have greater access to illicit substances, whether that is through family participation (parents’ liquor cabinets, a sibling’s medication, etc.) or not, are more likely to struggle with substance abuse and require addiction treatment. This includes teenagers who have been prescribed drugs for legitimate ailments, such as painkillers following an operation, or stimulants to treat disorders.
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  • Teenagers who live or grow up in poverty have a higher likelihood of substance abuse and declining mental health. Poverty consistently plays a part in increasing the risk of a teenager’s likelihood of engaging in substance abuse and requiring some type of addiction treatment.
  • If a parent has struggled with substance abuse (and alcoholism in particular), a teenager is more susceptible to developing the same addiction. It is not known whether this is entirely genetic, or partially genetic and partially environmental, but if the teenager’s parents have a history of substance abuse, they are more likely to require addiction treatment, as well.
  • Trauma has been linked to substance abuse in people of all ages and backgrounds, and teenagers who have been exposed to trauma are far more likely to abuse substances, take unnecessary risks, and potentially require addiction treatment. Treatment of the trauma itself may lessen this risk factor, as this risk factor may be directly related to mental health and mental health needs.
  • Family Management. If teenagers experienced little to no boundaries as children, were neglected, or were raised with substance abuse in their surroundings, they are more likely to have substance abuse issues, themselves. This is an environmental risk factor that can be corrected, but failure to do so could increase the likelihood of teenagers requiring addiction treatment.

While risk factors might initially seem frightening, they are not guarantees; teenagers who possess all of the risk factors above are not determined to also struggle with substance abuse and addiction. Nevertheless, these risk factors can alert parents to the possible likelihood of substance abuse and can encourage preventative measures to take place, whether that means treatment for a parent, mental health intervention for the family, or a change of environment for the teenager in question.

Addiction Treatment for Teenagers

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Substance abuse is frightening and can be a difficult topic for parents and teenagers to discuss freely and openly. Although the onset of substance abuse increases the risk of addiction, overdose, and adverse effects, there are numerous interventions available to teenagers struggling with drug use, whether that drug is marijuana, the most commonly abused substance, or Vicodin, a lesser-used substance. Improving a teenager’s environment, stress load, mental health, and family life can all be tremendously helpful in alleviating drug abuse and addiction. Addiction treatment ranges significantly in its scope, duration, and setting. In some cases, addiction can be treated through therapy, such as the online therapy provided through BetterHelp, and in others, substance abuse has grown significant enough to require the intervention of an addiction treatment facility, such as residential rehab. Whatever the case, teenage substance abuse and subsequent addiction are very treatable conditions, and parents and teenagers alike can begin seeking treatment options now.


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