Most Commonly Abused Drugs by Teens in the US

How can you tell if your child is using drugs or alcohol? It is difficult because changes in mood or attitudes, unusual temper outbursts, changes in sleeping habits and changes in hobbies or other interests are common in teens. What should you look for?

You can also look for signs of depression, withdrawal, carelessness with grooming or hostility. Also ask yourself, is your child doing well in school, getting along with friends, taking part in sports or other activities?

What are the most commonly abused drugs by teens?

Of the 13 most abused drugs many parents have them in their homes with easy access for their children: alcohol, tobacco, OTC and prescription drugs, inhalants and steroids.

  1. Alcohol: 1 in 2 teens in the United States used alcohol in the last year. Perhaps the most commonly abused psychoactive substance, alcohol is responsible for 85,000 deaths in the United States every year (, 2011).
  2.  Tobacco: Another legal psychoactive substance, Tobacco is highly addictive and frequently abused. 1 in 4 teens uses tobacco each month (The Partnership, 2011). Due to the toxic ingredients, 435,000 deaths are attributed to its use annually, in the United States.
  3. Marijuana: This drug derived from the Cannabis Sativa plant, is used by 1 in 3 teens in the U.S. It can cause memory and learning problems, slowed reaction time, hallucinations, delusions, paranoia, and depersonalization. Due to some carcinogenic ingredients, it has also been linked to cancer.
  4. Prescription Pain Relievers: Easily accessible in mom’s or grandma’s medicine cabinet, 1 in 5 teens abuses prescription painkillers like Vicodin, Lortab, Percocet, Codeine, and OxyContin. Depending on the type, prescription painkillers, when abused, are chemically similar to heroin and crack and can have the same deadly effects.
  5. Inhalants: Also available around the house, these noxious chemicals such as paint thinners, nail polish remover, glues, and even whipped cream aerosol can be abused. Using inhalants can cause death on the first use. They do incredible damage to body organs, including the brain. The damage, if survived, can be lasting or permanent. 1 in 6 teens in the U.S. have abused inhalants.
  6. Cough medicine: Teenagers often get their start on cheap and accessible psychoactive drugs like cough syrup and cold medicine. While safe when used as directed, cough medicine is abused by 1 in 8 teens. When used in excessive amounts, it can cause anything from abdominal pain and nausea to liver damage.
  7.  Ecstasy/MDMA: These popular “party drugs” are abused by 1 in 8 teens in the U.S. While the sought-after effect is pleasure and a feeling of closeness and “love,” it can cause liver and heart failure and even death. Also, the purity of this drug is often suspect, being combined with other dangerous drugs like methamphetamines.
  8. Cocaine/Crack: Cocaine generally comes in white powder, while crack is a version of the same drug that looks like little crystals. 1 in 9 teens abuses crack or cocaine in the U.S. Heart attacks, strokes, and seizures are common side effects. In addition, some individuals die on the first use.
  9. Prescription Stimulants: Going back to prescription drugs, the 9th most commonly abused drug type is prescription stimulants. These include Ritalin, Dexedrine, and Adderall. Stimulants such as these, in low doses, can calm individuals with ADHD, because of the way it targets a specific function in the brain of such patients. However, when used by individuals without ADHD and especially in larger amounts than prescribed, the results can be very serious. High doses can produce lethal fevers and irregular heartbeat. Deadly seizures and heart attacks can result. 1 in 10 teens has abused Ritalin or Adderall.
  10. Prescription Sedatives: Prescription stimulants are followed close behind by prescription sedatives and tranquilizers, in popularity. This category includes drugs like Xanax, Valium, Mebaral, and Quaaludes. 1 in 11 teenagers has abused these drugs. These drugs, when abused, can slow heart rate and breathing rate, even causing respiratory or cardiac arrest. When a person who has abused them regularly stops using, seizures and even death can result, if medical detoxification is not performed safely in a hospital setting.
  11. Methamphetamine: Meth, Crank, or Speed is called by many names, but is the same deadly drug. 1 in 14 teens has abused this drug that causes, over time, the characteristic appearance of aged, sallow skin with open sores and scabs. This extremely addictive substance often causes psychotic and/or violent behavior leading to crimes including homicide. Paranoia and delusions are also common. Hallucinations, insomnia, and anorexia add to the list of effects, with death being the ultimate result of untreated meth addiction.
  12. Steroids: Steroids may not get as much attention in the media as they used to, but they still pose a serious threat to the youth of the United States. 1 in 20 teens abuses these drugs that cause rapid growth of muscles, opposite sex characteristics (facial hair on women, breasts on men), and extreme irritability. Teens who abuse this drug before they reach their adult height may permanently stunt their growth.
  13. Heroin: The last but not the least of the most commonly abused drugs in the United States, Heroin poses a special threat because of the lack of purity of much of the drug circulating in the streets. Contaminants can be toxic or fatal, on top of the danger inherent in the original drug. Like steroids, heroin is abused by 1 in 20 teens in the U.S. Similar to meth users, heroin users may have open sores or scabs, lack the ability to sleep, and may not eat well. Death by overdose of this drug is an unfortunately common scenario.

Of all the drugs abused by teenagers in the U.S., the preceding 13 are currently the most common. But, there are always new drugs and synthetic versions of older drugs coming available. For example, while Spice, a form of Marijuana sold as “incense” in smoke shops has just been getting the notoriety its negative reputation calls for, a new drug has come on the scene “Ivory Wave,” sold as “bath salts.”

Ivory Wave is actually a synthetic version of methamphetamines but, sold as bath salts, is not being regulated by the FDA. While the war on drugs continues, it is important to stay abreast of current trends, especially for concerned parents, as most drug use begins in the teenage years.

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Cynthia Mittelsteadt
(510) 659-6330
Fremont, CA


DrugWarFacts.Org (2011). Annual Causes of Death in the United States. Retrieved February 15, 2011 from
The Partnership at
(2011).  Drug Guide; Information for over 40 commonly-abused drugs. Retrieved January 30, 2011 from

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