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Substance Abuse and Addiction in Teens

Last updated May 15, 2018

Approved by: Krish Tangella MD, MBA, FCAP

Substance abuse occurs when an individual uses either illegal or legal drugs for recreational purposes. It is commonly the first step towards developing an addiction.


What are the other Names for this Condition? (Also known as/Synonyms)

  • Teens Drug Abuse
  • Teens Drug Addiction
  • Teens Substance Abuse and Addiction

What is Substance Abuse and Addiction in Teens? (Definition/Background Information)

  • Substance abuse occurs when an individual uses either illegal or legal drugs for recreational purposes. It is commonly the first step towards developing an addiction
  • An addiction occurs when the user becomes dependent on the drug being abused. Addiction is characterized by continued use regardless of the obvious negative effects that one may be aware of
  • Both substance abuse and addiction lead to behavioral and characteristic changes in the affected individual, which are not desirable
  • The US National Institute of Drug Abuse informs that the most commonly abused substances include alcohol, cocaine, hallucinogens, heroin, inhalants, LSD, marijuana (cannabis), methamphetamine, OTC cough and cold medicines, steroids (anabolic), tobacco, and prescription drugs such as painkillers (opioid), stimulants, and depressants
  • Substance Abuse and Addiction in Teens are observed in males about 2 times more than what is seen in females. The risk factors associated with substance abuse and addiction include early-onset of drug use, family history of drug addiction, traumatic life experiences, emotional instability, and peer pressure
  • The signs and symptoms associated with substance abuse and addiction generally include mood changes, social isolation, unexplained need for money, bloodshot eyes, irritability, and lack of motivation and cooperation
  • The main treatment for Substance Abuse and Addiction in Teens are counselling or talk therapy undertaken by a psychiatrist and medications to control the withdrawal symptoms. Once the drug usage is stopped, the chances of relapse may vary due to the wide range of drugs and effects associated with them
  • Substance abuse can be prevented 100% by refraining from drug use. Early detection or awareness can increase the chances of the user abstaining from recreational drug use

Who gets Substance Abuse and Addiction in Teens? (Age and Sex Distribution)

  • All teens are at a potential risk to use drugs and/or be addicted
  • However, males are twice more likely to have trouble with substance abuse and addiction than females
  • Recently it has been found that teens of Hispanic decent are more likely to abuse and become addicted to drugs

What are the Risk Factors for Substance Abuse and Addiction in Teens? (Predisposing Factors)

The risk factors associated with Substance Abuse and Addiction in Teens includes:

  • Early onset of drug use
  • Lack of parental supervision, unclear parental views on drug use
  • Encouragement of drug use from parents and family members; a family history of addiction
  • Impulsive nature
  • Traumatic life experiences
  • Emotional instability
  • Mental health conditions such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

It is important to note that having a risk factor does not mean that one will get the condition. A risk factor increases ones chances of getting a condition compared to an individual without the risk factors. Some risk factors are more important than others.

Also, not having a risk factor does not mean that an individual will not get the condition. It is always important to discuss the effect of risk factors with your healthcare provider.

What are the Causes of Substance Abuse and Addiction in Teens? (Etiology)

A continuous and chronic abuse typically leads to addiction. The following can potentially cause Substance Abuse and Addiction in Teens:

  • Environment where drugs are prevalent
  • Low self-esteem
  • Thrill-seeking behavior
  • Feelings of neglect from parents and other close family members
  • Desire to ‘fit in’ with friends
  • Having a psychological problem
  • How the drug is administered (such as through injection or inhalation) may play a role in its addictiveness quality or potential; some drug administration methods enhance this addictive quality
  • Genetic factors also can be the cause of addiction once dependence sets in

Addiction is caused by the repetitive use of the drug or substance. Once dependence has occurred, the brain alters one’s behavior when the drug is temporarily discontinued, thus leaving the individual craving for more, in order to feel “normal” again.

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Substance Abuse and Addiction in Teens?

Signs and symptoms associated with Teen Substance Abuse and Addiction include:

  • Mood changes
  • Evidence of drugs and/or paraphernalia
  • Unusual change of smell
  • Decreased interest in school, previous friendships, or appearance
  • Unexplained need for money, trying to get money through any means possible (begging, borrowing, and stealing)
  • Emotional and/or physical isolation, withdrawal
  • Behavior changes
  • Indulging in secretive behavior, avoiding eye contact, staying frequently behind locked doors
  • Slurred speech
  • Irritability
  • Lack of cooperation
  • Lack of motivation
  • Bloodshot eyes (red eyes)
  • Weight loss or gain that is sudden

Each drug has specific signs and symptoms associated with its use. The above mentioned points are general features linked to most substance use.

How is Substance Abuse and Addiction in Teens Diagnosed?

The diagnosis of Substance Abuse and Addiction in Teens include:

  • A physician diagnoses substance abuse after a thorough physical evaluation and medical history review
  • The diagnostic criteria for substance abuse states that the abuse must lead to significant impairment, backed by certain experiences, within a year. One or more of the following criteria must be met:
    • Frequent use of substance in situations that are potentially hazardous to the user
    • Neglecting work, college, and/or family obligations frequently due to drug use
    • Repetitive legal problems due to substance use or abuse
    • Continued use regardless of adverse (health or other) effects as a result of drug use   

If all of the above criteria are seen, a physician will determine whether the abuser is addicted or not.

  • The diagnostic criteria for addiction (dependence) states that there must be significant stress or impairment during a year, as a result of 3 of the following factors:
    • Noticeably increased amounts of the drug are needed to reach the “effect” once obtained with smaller amounts (drug tolerance)
    • There are withdrawal symptoms when the drug use is stopped. Also, additional drug use is required to stop the withdrawal symptoms
    • Substance use cannot be stopped regardless of the users desiring to do so
    • Chronic seeking behavior to obtain the drug
    • Neglect or isolation from employment, social, and recreational activities due to drug use
    • Continued substance use, although the user feels consistent physical or psychological disturbances 

Many clinical conditions may have similar signs and symptoms. Your healthcare provider may perform additional tests to rule out other clinical conditions to arrive at a definitive diagnosis.

What are the possible Complications of Substance Abuse and Addiction in Teens?

Complications associated with Substance Abuse and Addiction in Teens includes:

  • Legal problems
  • Risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases
  • Brain damage
  • Loss of social/meaningful relationships, frequently getting involved in fights, violent behavior
  • Isolation from family and friends
  • Injuries and accidents (such as from driving under influence)

Death can occur due to the overuse of large amounts of the drug.

How is Substance Abuse and Addiction in Teens Treated?

Treatment plans for Substance Abuse and Addiction in Teens are chosen depending on the severity of the condition, what type of substance is involved, and the personal preferences of the user. The following treatment and support measures may be considered:

  • Family therapy: Getting the help of family members or spouse to bring about a positive outcome
  • Inpatient programs at a facility for an extended time, also known as residential treatment
  • Outpatient programs for drug addicts and alcoholics with long-term recovery goals
  • Medications to subside withdrawal symptoms
  • Support groups such as Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous
  • Behavioral therapy: In this therapy, the undesirable habits are replaced with desirable habits, using behavior modification
  • Cognitive therapy: This can help develop positive thinking and overcome depression, feelings of negative thought, etc.
  • Encourage involvement in other social activities, school clubs, and sports activities

How can Substance Abuse and Addiction in Teens be Prevented?

Teen Substance Abuse and Addiction is completely preventable by refraining from substance use or abuse. The preventative strategies may include the following steps. These strategies may also be used to prevent a relapse in addicted teens.

  • Open communication between parent and child
  • Parents should set a good example by not engaging in drug use
  • Avoiding social groups that encourage drug and substance use
  • Parents should be involved in the teen’s social interests and be acquainted with their friends
  • Set actions that will be followed through if drug use is suspected
  • Avoid high-risk drug-use situations and follow treatment plans (for their entire course) to minimize the chances of relapse
  • Surround yourself with friends and family members who can understand and support you; this can help avoid relapses
  • Always keep follow-up appointments with your healthcare provider

What is the Prognosis of Substance Abuse and Addiction in Teens? (Outcomes/Resolutions)

The prognosis associated with Substance Abuse and Addiction in Teens is complex and is dependent upon many factors, which include the length of time and severity of the dependence.

  • Most users will relapse within 3 months of stopping the substance use
  • However, the prognosis can be fairly good, if the user is committed to stay sober
  • Early detection can increase the chances of the user abstaining from drugs
  • Relapse of the condition depends upon the substance type and its effect on the body after usage is stopped. It also depends upon the response to the therapy provided, help and support from family and friends, etc.

Recovery from substance abuse may take a long period of time; even if treatment measures are initially unsuccessful, they can yield positive outcomes with determined efforts of all involved.

Additional and Relevant Useful Information for Substance Abuse and Addiction in Teens:

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), globally there are over 155 to 250 million people (teens and adults in the 15-64 years age group) who are addicted to psychoactive drugs, which include cannabis, amphetamine, cocaine, opioids, and many others.

What are some Useful Resources for Additional Information?


References and Information Sources used for the Article:


Helpful Peer-Reviewed Medical Articles:


Reviewed and Approved by a member of the DoveMed Editorial Board
First uploaded: May 18, 2015
Last updated: May 15, 2018