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What Are The Health Effects Of Teen Substance Abuse?

Teens are more likely to get involved in risky behavior due to their perceived social benefits (peer pressure or feeling accepted) without considering the negative effects to their health. If you are concerned about substance abuse in a teenager’s life, contact a treatment provider for help and support.

The Many Health Effects Of Teen Substance Abuse

While substance abuse is dangerous for someone of any age, it is particularly risky for teens, whose bodies and minds have not yet developed. Teen substance abuse has many health effects, including impacted brain development, delayed puberty, and much more.

Why The Teenage Brain Is Vulnerable To Addiction

For several years scientists have studied the brain and how it develops throughout a person’s life. Some studies have focused on the changes that happen during a person’s teenage years. Puberty and the time leading up to it are filled with a lot of biological and psychological changes. As physical changes occur, the teen’s brain also develops but at different rates. The pleasure center of the brain develops faster than the parts responsible for planning and risk analysis. For this reason, teens can often be risk-takers who don’t recognize the consequences of their actions. Experimentation with drugs and alcohol is common during these formative years and, unfortunately, can have lasting effects on a teen’s health.

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Brain Development During Adolescence

Researchers found that a dramatic spurt of both physical and intellectual growth occurs during adolescence. As a person grows older, certain brain functions develop at different rates. While the brain reaches its full physical size around 11 to 14 years old, it doesn’t finish maturing until your mid-to-late-20s. The last region of the brain to develop is called the prefrontal cortex, or the front part of the brain. This area is responsible for decision-making, prioritizing, and controlling impulses.

These big changes in the brain result in a time that many mental disorders start to emerge, such as schizophrenia, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and substance use disorders. Teenage brains also require more sleep than children and adults, something that can often be disturbed by substance abuse. Lack of sleep decreases one’s attention span, increases impulsivity, irritability, and depression. Teens will often turn to drugs either to experiment or cope with their problems, both of which can cause short- and long-term effects on a teen’s health.

Why Substance Abuse Is Harmful To The Brain

Adolescent years are essential for the development of a healthy brain and cognitive functions as an adult, so healthy behavior is important during these years. Alcohol and drug use can impact a teen’s health short-term as well as slow down or prevent growth and development of the body and mind. Many factors will influence a teen’s decision to try drugs and that includes genetic disposition, personality traits, mental health conditions, and of course, his or her environment. Teens who experience or witness violence, physical or emotional abuse, or drug use in the household are at a higher risk of substance abuse.

Substance abuse affects the teenage brain by:

  • Reducing the ability to experience pleasure.
  • Interfering with neurotransmitters.
  • Causing damage to brain connections.
  • Creating memory loss.
  • Lowering IQ or learning potential.
  • Increasing the risk of alcoholism or substance use disorder.

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Effects Of Teenage Drinking

Alcohol consumption is illegal for people under 21 years of age but, findings show that around 10% of all alcohol in the U.S. is consumed by teens between the ages of 12 and 20. In fact, by 12th grade about two-thirds of students will have tried alcohol. Teens also tend to binge drink because they are less sensitive than adults to the unpleasant side effects of intoxication. On the other hand, research also shows that teens may be more sensitive to some of alcohol’s harmful effects. Excessive drinking in teens can lead to:

  • Delayed puberty
  • Negative effects on the reproductive system
  • Higher levels of liver enzymes
  • Liver damage
  • Lower bone mineral density
  • Shorter limbs and reduced growth potential

About 15% of people who start drinking by the age of 14 eventually develop a dependency or become alcoholics. In addition to harming the body, alcohol use is often accompanied by other risky behavior like unprotected sex and reckless driving. In the United States alone, about 4,300 people under 21 die each year due to drinking-related injuries.

Effects Of Teenage Smoking

Alcohol, marijuana, and tobacco are the most commonly used substances by teens. About half of students between 9th and 12th grade reported having tried marijuana and about 4 in 10 reported trying cigarettes. Even though the harmful effects of smoking are now widely known, most people who become regular smokers started before the age of 18. E-cigarettes have become more popular among teens, but users inhale the same nicotine from a regular cigarette.

Smoking nicotine and tobacco products can lead to addiction, damage to vital organs, breathing problems, and lung cancer. Those who start using marijuana before 18 are four to seven times more likely to develop a drug problem or substance abuse. Research shows that marijuana has been linked to an increased chance for mental illness such as depression and can dull a person’s attention, memory, and learning skills. Compared to teens who don’t smoke marijuana, those who do are less likely to finish school.

Statistics Of Teen Substance Abuse

of high school students

will have tried alcohol by their senior year.


of those who abuse prescription drugs by 13 will develop a substance use disorder.


of people with a substance use disorder began using marijuana by the age of 14.

Prevent The Health Effects Of Teen Substance Abuse

If you know a teen who shows signs of a substance use disorder, you can help them by making them aware of the effects it may have on their health. Get in touch with a treatment provider today.

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