Even Occasional Substance Use Has Consequences for Teens

Prescription Medicine Bottles on a Teacher's Desk

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A common—and dangerous—misconception about prescription drug use is that it is safe to use drugs as long as you only do so "once in a while." While every person is vulnerable to misinformation about drug use, teens are more likely to believe that occasional drug use won't lead to addiction or overdose.

However, research has shown that even infrequent drug use can have major, if not lifelong or life-threatening, consequences for young adults. Here's what you need to know about the safety of prescription drugs and the risks of early-onset substance use.

Risks of Early Substance Use

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), early-onset substance use can have serious—and long-lasting—consequences.

Using substances as a teen can:

  • Affect brain development
  • Increase the likelihood of engaging in risk-taking behaviors
  • Increase the risk of developing a substance use disorder in adulthood
  • Increase the risk of long-term health problems (including heart disease and high blood pressure)

Teen Drug Use

Experimenting with drugs and alcohol is common during adolescence. According to data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), substance use may start as early as age 12 or 13—if not earlier.

While young people often do know about the risks of substance use, many teens mistakenly believe that trying a substance just once or only using it on occasion is safe.

Young adults do not necessarily have to buy illicit drugs "off the street." Teens may access substances through their peers and even in their homes. For example, a teen might take a family member's prescription from the medicine cabinet or take a bottle of liquor from the kitchen.

Almost 20% of high school seniors reported getting, selling, or being offered, drugs while they were at school.

Alcohol

According to the Monitoring the Future report (which surveys high school students in the United States each year about their drug and alcohol use), around 58% of high school seniors said they had used alcohol at least once in their life.

Around 29% of seniors reported having had at least one alcoholic drink in the past month. About 14% of seniors reported binge drinking (more than 5 drinks in a row in the past 2 weeks).

Illicit Drugs

In the national survey, about 35% of seniors reported smoking marijuana in the past year. About 6% said they used marijuana every day. About 3% of seniors said they had tried synthetic cannabinoids ("spice").

Other illicit drugs, including methamphetamines and hallucinogens, were less commonly reported than marijuana.

  • Almost 14% of seniors reported that they had used opioid pain medications that had not been prescribed for them in the previous year.
  • About 10% of seniors reported trying a hallucinogenic (such as LSD, acid, or mushrooms).
  • About 5% of seniors reported trying ecstasy (MDMA).
  • About 2% of seniors reported that they had tried cocaine.
  • Less than 1% of seniors reported using heroin and methamphetamines.

Prescription Drugs

About 6.8% of seniors reported misusing a prescription pain medication (such as Vicodin or Oxycontin)—meaning they were taking a medication that had not been prescribed for them or not taking a prescription the way their provider told them to.

People of all ages may wrongfully assume that only illicit drugs are unsafe. In fact, prescription medication and over-the-counter (OTC) products can be misused—and with potentially deadly consequences.

Prescription drugs can cause serious side effects—even if you obtained them legally and take them as prescribed by your healthcare provider.

If prescription drugs were completely safe, you could just walk into a store and buy them. There are several reasons why it's necessary to get a prescription from your healthcare provider before you can take these medications and why it is not safe to take a medication that has not been prescribed for you.

Why You Need a Prescription

You might have heard stories on the news or in your community about a teenager who died of an accidental overdose while experimenting with drugs for the first time or a young person who died from alcohol poisoning after having their first drink.

While you probably assume that it can be risky to use substances heavily or for a long time, you might not be aware that it's possible to experience dangerous side effects or even fatal reactions the first time you try a substance.

Side Effects

Almost all medications have side effects, but not every person will experience every possible side effect. Your provider needs to examine you and review your medical history before deciding if a medication is safe for you to take.

If you have a health condition, some medications might make your condition worse, create new symptoms, or increase your risk of complications. Even if your condition is temporary—such as if you are pregnant or breastfeeding—you still might need to avoid certain medications.

In some cases, your provider might decide that a medication is safe for you to take but you will need a different dose than is normally prescribed.

The differences in our bodies mean that we are not affected by substances in the same way. Sometimes, factors that change in our bodies (and our lives) will also change how substances affect us.

Interactions

Some medications can clash with others and cause severe reactions. When they are considering prescribing a new medication to you, your provider will need to determine if it could interfere or react with a medication that you already take.

Drug interactions can also occur between medications and supplements, such as herbal remedies, over-the-counter (OTC) products, and even some foods.

When you are discussing medications with your provider, make sure that you tell them about everything that you take—even a daily vitamin.

Real-World Example: Students Misusing Stimulants

One example of occasional medication misuse that can have serious consequences is students who share their Adderall prescriptions. People of all ages take drugs like Adderall and Ritalin to help manage symptoms of Attention-Deficient Disorder (ADD), but these medications can also be misused by people who do not have the disorder.

On college campuses (and even in middle and high schools), students often feel pressured to perform at a high level in their academic, extracurricular, and personal lives. Young adults can be tempted to use stimulants like Adderall because they think the drug will give them a competitive edge.

A student might think that taking "just one or two" pills to help them study the night before an exam couldn't hurt, but medications like Adderall can have severe side effects. In fact, the potential risks (including for dependence) are serious enough that the medication isn't just prescription-only—it's also a controlled substance.

In addition to having a high potential for abuse, stimulant drugs like Adderall carry the possibility of severe adverse effects. Before someone is given a prescription for a stimulant, their healthcare provider will make sure that they do not have any risk factors that could make it unsafe for them to take the drug.

Some of the common side effects of the drug, such as a faster heart rate, can be potentially fatal for people with heart conditions. In fact, sudden death from a heart-related complication can occur if a person who does not know they have an underlying heart problem takes Adderall or another stimulant drug.

If someone who has not been screened by a healthcare provider takes a stimulant, they could be at risk for serious—if not life-threatening—side effects.

Other possible side effects, like nausea and loss of appetite, can be severe and may put a person at risk for malnutrition or disordered eating. Stimulants can also make it more difficult to fall and stay asleep (insomnia).

Stimulant misuse can also affect someone's mental health. The nervousness that some people experience when they take stimulants could potentially make mental health conditions like anxiety, panic disorder, depression worse.

Risks of Using Alcohol and Drugs

The health effects of substances have been studied in nearly every age group—from fetuses to the oldest adults in the population. However, this research has mostly been done with animal models because it would not be safe or ethical to conduct such studies on humans.

What researchers do know is that the risks of using drugs and alcohol are unique for teenagers because the adolescent mind and body are still developing.

Physical and Mental Health

Drinking alcohol during such an important period of their development can have immediate and long-term effects. Young adults can experience physical, emotional, social, and even financial or legal consequences from using alcohol—even if their use is not frequent or excessive.

Using alcohol puts you at risk for a number of physical health problems, especially if you drink a lot or you use other drugs with alcohol.

A teen's alcohol use can affect every aspect of their life, from their ability to focus at school and in their extracurricular activities, to their relationships with friends and family, and even to their physical and mental wellbeing.

Alcohol also affects the brain. It can make it harder to focus and remember things, and you might feel depressed and anxious. If you have a mental health condition, using alcohol or any substance can make your symptoms worse or give you new symptoms.

Many substances interact dangerously with medications that are used to treat depression and anxiety.

Drinking alcohol can also change the brain in ways that affect learning, memory, and decision making. Research has shown that these changes can be permanent. Other drugs, such as marijuana, cocaine, or amphetamines, have also been shown to have a lasting effect on the brain.

Any person can develop alcohol poisoning or a drug overdose, but teens who are experimenting are especially at risk.

Social and Legal Consequences

Substance use can also affect a teen's life at school and at home. Drug and alcohol use can affect academic performance, involvement in extracurricular activities and sports, relationships with peers, friends, and family, as well as dating and sexual relationships.

In the United States, it is illegal for any person under the age of 21 to have, use, or give someone else alcohol or tobacco. It's also illegal for any person to have, use, or give someone else illicit drugs or prescription drugs.

Teens who use substances could face disciplinary action not only at school and at home, but in their communities. The legal consequences can include fines, time at a juvenile detention center, loss of driving and other privileges, loss of a job, and even prison time.

If an underaged person has, is using, or is distributing alcohol, tobacco, or any illicit substance, they are breaking the law. It does not matter if it was the first—or only—time.

Adolescents often find it difficult to think about the longterm effect of their actions, but the effect of substance use in their teen years—whether on their physical and emotional health, academic career, relationships, or legal record—can stay with them into adulthood.

People, especially young adults, are vulnerable to the dangers of social settings where alcohol and drug use often occur, such as parties. Using substances puts a teen at risk for experiencing sexual, dating, and relationship violence.

A Word From Verywell

While everyone is susceptible to misinformation about drugs, young people are at an especially increased risk. Early-onset substance use can permanently change the brain, affect development, and increase a teen's risk for developing physical and mental health conditions. Teens who use substances are also at an increased risk for developing substance use disorders as adults.

If you are concerned about your own substance use or if someone you care about is using drugs, know that there are resources that you can turn to for help.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area. 

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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Article Sources
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