Get help today 888-287-0471 or sign up for 24/7 text support.
American Addiction Centers National Rehabs Directory

The 10 Most Abused Drugs by Teens

Read time: 25 minutes

Substance abuse and addiction are complex and dangerous issues with challenges that are compounded when the affected individual is a teenager, as drugs and alcohol can modify the developing brain and negatively influence physical health.

Teens may be drawn to use substances for a number of reasons. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), adolescents are likely to use drugs:1

  • To fit in or socialize with people their age.
  • To improve their mood.
  • To self-medicate undiagnosed or untreated mental health conditions.
  • To perform at higher levels in and out of school.
  • To explore new experiences.

To gain a better understanding of teen drug abuse, it helps to understand which substances are most commonly abused by teens and why. Each year, NIDA, in collaboration with the University of Michigan, completes an extensive survey of high school students in the U.S. and compiles the data to show which substances are being used as well as the percentage of the teenage population using them.

The following are the 10 substances most commonly used substances by teens and adolescents according to the Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey.2

  1. Alcohol
  2. Marijuana
  3. Nicotine
  4. Adderall
  5. Opioids
  6. Tranquilizers
  7. Spice/K2
  8. Hallucinogens
  9. Inhalants
  10. DXM


Man pouring alcohol to the glass

1. Alcohol

percentage-of-students-who-drank-alcohol-in-2016With more than half of high school seniors abusing alcohol in the last year, this substance earns the dubious distinction of being the most frequently used drug. According to the MTF survey in 2015, students admitted drinking alcohol during the last year at rates of:2

  • 58.2% for 12th graders.
  • 41.9% for 10th graders.
  • 21.0% for 8th graders.

This high rate is not surprising since it is the most widely used substance among adults, as well. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA):3

  • 70.7% of people over 18 reported drinking in the last year.
  • 56.4% of people over 18 reported drinking in the past month.

Why Do Teens Use Alcohol?

For many teens, alcohol has many appealing factors:4

  • It is widely available in homes.
  • It is perceived as low risk due to the fact that is a legal substance.
  • It is associated with having fun and partying.

Effects of Alcohol Abuse on Teens

Once consumed, alcohol can produce its intoxicating effects in as little as 10 minutes. These effects — sought by teens and adults alike — include:4

  • Decreased inhibitions.
  • Increased comfort in social situations.
  • Decreased feelings of worry and anxiety.
  • Decreased physical tension.

When used at higher levels or over an extended period, alcohol can lead to many negative and dangerous consequences like:4

  • Poor memory and problems with learning.
  • Mood changes such as depression or irritability.
  • Poor decision-making skills with increase in risky behavior.
  • Decreased physical coordination.
  • Slowed breathing and heart rate.
  • Seizures.
  • Death from overdose or accident associated with use.

Treatment for Alcohol Addiction

A teen that is addicted to or dependent on alcohol will require professional treatment to manage the condition. It will be essential for the teen to receive a complete health evaluation as treatment commences since the withdrawal syndrome for alcohol can lead to seizures and death in some cases.5,11

Detox programs staffed with medical professionals will help keep the teen patient safe and comfortable as the body rids itself of alcohol’s toxic influence. Following completion of the detoxification process, the teen may benefit from attending ongoing mental health or substance abuse treatment, including:1,11

  • Individual therapy.
  • Group therapy.
  • In-home/ family-based therapy.
  • Support group participation.
  • Behavioral health interventions and/or medication management for mental health issues.
  • Ongoing medication-assisted treatment with medicines such as Campral, Antabuse and naltrexone to reduce the risk of future use.

Alcohol abuse is well-treated by many styles of therapy like:6

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): A treatment style that focuses on the interactions between one’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors
  • Motivational interviewing (MI): A style centered on building motivation for change from within the individual.
  • Contingency management (CM): A behavioral intervention that provides rewards for desired behaviors.
  • Community reinforcement approach (CRA): A multifaceted treatment that involves family, friends, and community resources to benefit the client.

If you know someone in need of treatment for alcohol addiction, call today to speak with a treatment support specialist.

Man rolling marijuana by hand

2. Marijuana

marijuana-use-among-12th-gradersThe second most popular substance among high school students is marijuana, according to the MTF. Whereas abuse of other substances has been declining over the years, marijuana use has been steady or increasing in some cases. In 2015:2

  • 44.7% of 12th graders report lifetime use.
  • 21.3% of 12th graders report past month use.
  • 6% of 12th graders report daily use.

Marijuana is most often smoked but can be consumed by other means such as consumption of edible products. The psychoactive chemical in marijuana, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), binds to specific parts of the brain that trigger the release of a neurotransmitter called dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of pleasure and reward.7

Why Do Teens Use Marijuana?

Part of marijuana’s appeal stems from the notion that it is not harmful. Marijuana is thought by many users to have no addictive qualities or pose any negative risks to their health. In fact, less than 32% of 12th graders thought that regular use of marijuana could be harmful, down from 36% in 2014 according to MTF.2

Effects of Using Marijuana

Because the perceived risk of marijuana is low, teens tend to focus on the desirable effects of marijuana like:7

  • Euphoric high.
  • Reduced stress and worry.
  • Increased feelings of well-being and peace.

However, there are negative consequences to using this drug. It is possible for people to become addicted to marijuana, and this risk is higher for those that begin use earlier in life. Marijuana addiction may be marked by withdrawal symptoms when not using:1

  • Irritability.
  • Anxiety.
  • Changes in sleeping and eating patterns.
  • Drug cravings.

People that continue use face unwanted effects that include:7

  • Decreased judgment and decision-making abilities.
  • Problems with learning and memory.
  • Impaired coordination.
  • Respiratory problems.
  • Increased risk for developing mental health conditions like anxiety, depression and, in susceptible individuals, psychosis.

Treatment for Marijuana Addiction

Effective treatment for marijuana use will focus on mental and behavioral therapy strategies, since there are no medications approved to specifically treat marijuana addiction. (Note that medications may be prescribed, however, to treat the presence of any co-occurring mental health conditions.17)

Therapy strategies will focus on:6

  • Substance abuse education.
  • Management of co-occurring conditions.
  • Family therapy.
  • Individual therapy using CBT, MI, and CM.
  • Support group services.

A box full of cigarettes / Cigarettes contain Nicotine

3. Nicotine

Smoking rates in the past month: • 8th graders: 2.6%. • 10th graders: 4.9%. • 12th graders: 10.5%.

Though the level of cigarette use has been dropping significantly as perceptions of risk increase, nicotine use continues to be a topic of concern for teens and adolescents. A factor is the rising trend of e-cigarette use among younger teens.

Teens and adolescents that use these products are often unaware of what is contained in e-cigarettes due to lack of regulation and misinformation from the manufacturers and their peers.2

Why Do Teens Use Nicotine?

Nicotine products continue to be popular due to their relatively low cost and easy accessibility. While the many risks of cigarettes are well known, e-cigarettes are presented as safer alternatives, and so may be more readily adopted by teens.

Effects of Cigarette Use

Part of nicotine’s appeal is its ability to trigger the release of dopamine and adrenaline and cause effects such as:8

  • A short-lived rush.
  • Feelings of relaxation.
  • Improved energy.

Cigarette smoking is known to contribute to a long list of negative effects such as heart disease, emphysema and lung cancer, but new research on e-cigarettes and vapes is showing risks like:8

  • Carcinogens and toxins in the vapor.
  • Increased likelihood of switching to cigarettes.
  • Increased risk of addiction to other tobacco substances like cigarettes.

Treatment for Nicotine Addiction

Depending on their age, adolescents looking to quit their nicotine use will have a number of pharmaceutical options to aid their treatment like:1

  • Bupropion (Zyban): This antidepressant medication can help mitigate withdrawal symptoms and cravings.
  • Nicotine replacement therapies (NRT): NRT comes in many forms, such as patches, gums, lozenges, sprays, and inhalers, and helps to wean the user off nicotine by providing either instant or slower, controlled release of various doses of nicotine until use can be tapered down and discontinued altogether.
  • Varenicline (Chantix): This oral medication can stimulate nicotine receptors in the brain to reduce the severity of withdrawal and prevent a return to use.

Behavioral approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)—either alone, or in conjunction with NRT methods—may also help some individuals stop smoking.

Adderall pills on the table

4. Adderall

Adderall is a medication prescribed primarily for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) that is comprised of two substances: amphetamine and dextroamphetamine. Both substances essentially speed up the functioning of the body and induce improved levels of concentration while reducing hyperactivity.9

Adderall falls into a broader category of prescription stimulant medications with other drugs like:9

  • Dexedrine (amphetamine).
  • Ritalin (methylphenidate).
  • Concerta (methylphenidate).
  • Vyvanse (lisdexamfetamine)

Though differences exist between them, they act in similar ways in the brain by increasing the levels of dopamine and another neurotransmitter called norepinephrine.

When taken as prescribed, Adderall and other stimulant medications can be safe and effective. When taken in ways other than prescribed, they can be dangerous and addictive. Consider the Adderall abuse rates, according to the MTF survey in 2015:2

  • 7.5% of 12th graders in 2015 (up from 6.6% in 2014).
  • 5.2% of 10th graders in 2015 (up from 4.6% in 2014).
  • 1.0% of 8th graders in 2015 (down from 1.3% in 2014).

adderall-abuse-rates-amoung-teensWhy Do Teens Use Adderall?

Stimulants are appealing to teens for various reasons that include:9

  • Their perception of safety.
  • Their availability (teens often get them for free from friends).
  • Their use as a study aid.
  • Their use as a performance booster in athletics.

Effects of Adderall Abuse on Teens

When people abuse the substance by taking their medication in ways other than prescribed or when taking medication not prescribed to them, they may achieve intended effects like:9

  • Increased energy with decreased need for sleep.
  • Diminished appetite.
  • Euphoric high.

Risks and side effects of abusing Adderall include:9

  • Elevated blood pressure and body temperature.
  • Irregular heart beat.
  • Paranoia and irritability.
  • Seizures.
  • Strokes.

Additionally, there is no evidence to support that Adderall will improve the academic or athletic performance of those that abuse the substance.9

Treatment for Adderall Addiction

Treatment will take various forms depending on the severity level of the addiction the teenager is struggling with. In some cases, abruptly quitting Adderall after sustained, high dose use can lead to dangerous withdrawal symptoms including:9

  • Extreme depression with thoughts of suicide.
  • Excessive anger with potential for violence.
  • Fatigue.
  • Cravings for more Adderall.

Some teens will benefit from inpatient treatment to manage symptoms while ensuring safety. Others can be treated on an outpatient basis with the application of various therapeutic strategies such as the Matrix Model.

The Matrix Model is a plan of treatment that incorporates aspects of various settings and styles to benefit the client with the therapist acting as a teacher and a coach. Sessions will follow a treatment model utilizing individual, group, and family sessions as well as drug tests, support groups, and analysis of relapse potential. The Matrix Model has been proven particularly effective in addiction to stimulants like Adderall.6

Oxycontin prescription pills on a table

5. OxyContin (and Other Prescription Opioids)

OxyContin is a powerful and highly addictive brand name for oxycodone, a prescription opioid substance used for its pain-relieving capabilities. OxyContin is frequently abused by teens, with 3.7% of 12th graders using the substance in the year prior to the MTF survey.

Percentage of students who used OxyContin in 2016 • 8th graders: 0.9%. • 10th graders: 2.1%. • 12th graders: 3.4%. Percentage of students who used OxyContin in 2011: • 8th graders: 1.8%. • 10th graders: 3.9%. • 12th graders: 4.9%.Other prescription narcotics are widely abused as well. Consider that 4.4% of 12th graders admitting use Vicodin (hydrocodone) non-medically within the 12 months prior to the survey 10, 2. In addition to oxycodone and hydrocodone — two of the most talked-about opioids of abuse – a wide range of other painkillers are being abused by teens and adults alike. These include:10

Teens abuse the tablet forms of these drugs by taking them orally or, in some cases, by crushing and snorting or injecting them. Teens also commonly abuse prescription narcotics while drinking alcohol to intensify the high — a combination which can easily be deadly due to the combined CNS depressant effects.10

Like illicit opiates (e.g., heroin), these drugs trigger the release of large amounts of dopamine that leads to a feeling of reward that promotes repeated use. Users may also quickly develop a tolerance to the drug, which means they will need ever-increasing amounts to feel the same effects. Continually raising the dose places the user at extremely high risk of eventual overdose.10

Why Do Teens Use Opioids?

Percentage of students who used Vicodin in 2016 • 8th graders: 0.8% • 10th graders: 1.7%. • 12th graders: 2.9%.

The abuse of prescription pain medications by teens looking for a high is as prevalent as it is today in part because painkiller prescriptions are so common. The chance of finding an opioid drug in the medicine cabinet of any American home is extremely high.

Prescription painkillers are also commonly perceived as less risky than illicit drugs like heroin because of their legal status. In truth, these drugs pose quite a number of serious risks. Furthermore, the rate at which prescription opiate abusers eventually turn to heroin is alarming, with past prescription narcotic dependence making you 40x more likely to abuse heroin, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Effects of Opioid Abuse on Teens

Prescription drug usage among 12th graders • Sedatives: 3.0% • Opioids other than heroin: 4.8% • Amphetamines: 6.7%Prescription opioids depress the central nervous system (CNS) and can cause harmful effects like:10

  • Confusion and reduced decision-making skills.
  • Slowed pulse and lower blood pressure.
  • Slowed respiration.
  • Poor coordination.
  • Lethargy.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Chronic constipation.

When mixed with alcohol or other depressants, the risks are elevated and the user will be severely at risk of overdose, coma, and death. Deaths are alarmingly common, with opioid pain medications being linked to 19,000 deaths in 2014, according to NIDA.10

As use continues, the body grows dependent on the drug, and users may begin to feel as if they require substances like OxyContin to function normally. This state of needing the drug to operate as expected indicates physiological dependence. As mentioned above, prescription opioid dependence puts teens at heightened risk of heroin use, as maintaining a prescription pill habit can be extremely expensive, with one pill costing up to $80-$100. Heroin provides a very similar high at a much cheaper cost, so many teens looking to seek their normal high and avoid withdrawals eventually turn to heroin. In fact, nearly half of all adolescents that inject heroin previously abused pain medications.10

Treatment for Prescription Opioid Addiction

Professional treatment is essential in the case of opioid pain medication addiction to safeguard the health and well-being of the individual. This process may begin with detoxification to allow the body to process and remove opioids from the system. Detoxification in a medically supervised environment allows for the management of severe symptoms and can help to prevent relapse.11

Both pharmaceutical and behavioral therapeutic options exist to manage opioid addiction and maintain recovery. Some people will stop all opioid use and engage in therapy, while others will undergo medication-assisted treatment, which will replace their painkiller use with that of substances that minimize cravings and discourage abuse, such as:11

  • Methadone – A long-acting opioid substance that produces similar effects as the pain medications it replaces in a steady and managed way to reduce addictive behaviors. Methadone is dispensed from specially licensed clinics and practitioners.
  • Buprenorphine – A partial opioid agonist medication with an innate ceiling effect – prevents the onset of withdrawal and manages cravings with no pronounced, rewarding high. Buprenorphine is often used in combination with naloxone (as Suboxone) to further deter abuse. This can be prescribed from doctor’s offices.
  • Naltrexone – A substance that blocks the pleasurable effects of opioids. Taking this substance will reduce the recovering user’s desire to abuse pain medications, since they will not elicit their euphoric effects in the presence of naltrexone.

Tranquilizers prescription drug-taking with a syringe

6. Tranquilizers

Percentage of students using prescription tranquilizers in 2016 • 8th graders: 1.7%. • 10th graders: 4.1%. • 12th graders: 4.9%.When referenced in the MTF study, tranquilizers includes substances that alternatively are called depressants or sedatives like:12

  • Benzodiazepines.
    • Ativan.
    • Xanax.
    • Klonopin.
    • Valium.
  • Barbiturates.
    • Phenobarbital.
    • Butalbital.
  • Sleep medications.
    • Ambien.
    • Lunesta.
    • Sonata.

The MTF reports that:

  • 6.9% of 12th graders abused tranquilizers in their lifetime.
  • 5.8% of 10th graders abused tranquilizers in their lifetime.

These substances share the ability to slow the central nervous system by increasing the effects of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain. These substances are helpful in treating anxiety disorders, seizures, and sleep problems when taken as prescribed in pill form, but have a high potential for abuse and dependence.12

Why Do Teens Use Tranquilizers?

Part of the appeal of tranquilizers is their quick action in the body and their perceived level of safety. People may abuse their own prescription by taking more than prescribed or taking them more often than prescribed.

At times, teens will abuse these medications to blunt the “comedown” associated with or otherwise manage the unwanted effects of other substances like cocaine and methamphetamine.12

Effects of Tranquilizer Abuse on Teens

Once in the body, tranquilizers may elicit a range of both potentially therapeutic and undesirable effects, including:12

  • Decreased anxiety.
  • Reduced physical tension.
  • Increased drowsiness.
  • Poor coordination.
  • Confusion.
  • Slowed pulse and breathing.

Abuse of these substances can easily lead to overdose, especially when combined with other depressant substances like alcohol and opioids. According to NIDA, nearly 8,000 overdose deaths involved benzodiazepines in 2014 alone.

Treatment for Tranquilizer Addiction

Due to the potentially dangerous complications that may arise as part of an acute withdrawal syndrome seen when long-term tranquilizer use ends, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) recommends a supervised period of detoxification to allow monitoring and stabilization of the individual’s mental and physical health when substance use ends. Detoxing from tranquilizers alone or without medical care can lead to seizures or death.11,12

Following detox, ongoing treatment will be needed to further recovery progress. Successful completion of a detoxification program without a formal substance abuse treatment period does little to promote long-term recovery – and could increase the risk of relapse. Whether follow-up treatment is inpatient, residential, or outpatient, it will focus on:1

  • Understanding triggers of substance use.
  • Treating underlying mental health concerns.
  • Engaging in healthy supports and coping skills.

Drugs on a table

7. Spice/K2

Percentage of students using synthetic marijuana in 2016 • 8th graders: 2.7% • 10th graders: 3.3%. • 12th graders: 3.5%.Made of shredded plant matter combined with mind-altering chemicals, synthetic marijuana is known by many names, including:13

  • Spice.
  • K2.
  • Fake weed.

In many cases, the chemicals found in these substances may be similar to the THC found in marijuana. However, because the illicit manufacturers of these potent products may frequently change their chemical profiles to avoid detection and regulation by government agencies, there is significant potential for them to induce unexpected results – many of which are more dramatic and dangerous than those produced by natural cannabis.

To date, due to both their law-evading manufacturing and marketing methods and their widespread availability, use of synthetic cannabinoids has risen to alarmingly high rates of prevalence. These drugs can be obtained with relative ease on the Internet, where certain sites advertise it as legal and often label it “not for human consumption.” According to the MTF survey in 2015, Spice was used in the last year by:2

  • 5.2% of 12th graders.
  • 4.3% of 10th graders.
  • 3.1% of 8th graders.

Why Do Teens Use Spice/K2

While synthetic marijuana use has decreased somewhat in recent years due to heightened vigilance and bolstered regulation attempts, it remains appealing to many teens due to its:

  • Online availability.
  • Ability to confuse or fool parents into thinking it is incense.
  • Reputation as a “safe” drug.

Effects of Spice Abuse on Teens

When synthetic marijuana is smoked or consumed by being made into tea, the substance can trigger two different responses. One group will report:13

  • Increased relaxation.
  • Changed sensory perceptions.
  • Distorted sense of time.

Other people will experience very different effects like:13

  • High anxiety.
  • Paranoia.
  • Hallucinations.
  • Nausea.
  • Confusion.
  • Violence and aggression.

Treatment for Spice Addiction

Spice/K2 is addictive, and a teen who’s been abusing synthetic marijuana in any form may require treatment to maintain abstinence from it.

Because these types of substances are relatively new, specific treatment options and outcomes have not been widely researched. Like other forms of substance treatment, though, the teen may benefit from a treatment plan suited to their unique needs and symptoms.1,14,17

Hallucinogens on a table

8. Hallucinogens

Percentage of students using hallucinogens in 2016 • Hallucinogens other than LSD o 8th graders: 0.8%. o 10th graders: 2%. o 12th graders: 2.7%. • LSD o 8th graders: 0.8%. o 10th graders: 2.1%. o 12th graders: 3%. • Hallucinogens (total) o 8th graders: 1.2%. o 10th graders: 2.9%. o 12th graders: 4.3%.This group of substances contains psychoactive drugs that distort reality by triggering hallucinations, delusional thinking, and/ or skewed experiences of time and space. These substances include:15

Regarding 12th grade respondents on the 2015 MTF survey:

  • 6.4% had used hallucinogens in their lifetime.
  • 4.2% had used hallucinogens in the last year.
  • 2.9% had used LSD in the last year.

Why Do Teens Use Hallucinogens?

While hallucinogens may not be as available as other substances like alcohol and marijuana, their appeal lies in two main factors:

  • Their sought after ability to distort the environment of the user looking for novel recreational experiences.
  • Their lower perceived risk compared to other substances like cocaine or heroin.

In illustrating this second factor, the perceived risk of LSD by adolescents fell steadily for nine consecutive years, according to SAMHSA.22

Effects of Hallucinogens

Unfortunately, the perception of low risk may be inaccurate, as hallucinogen use is associated with numerous negative effects like:15

  • Higher body temperature.
  • Poor coordination.
  • Poor judgment.
  • Nausea.
  • Anxiety.
  • Depression.
  • Extreme paranoia and other symptoms of psychosis.

Treatment for Hallucinogen Addiction

Treatment of hallucinogen use will be most imperative during periods of acute intoxication to maintain the safety of the individual and others in the community.

If intoxication is not a present concern, hallucinogen abuse can be well treated with behavioral therapies that target the individual differences of the teen while assessing and managing their mental health needs in relation to their substance abuse needs.6,17

Opened inhalants on a table

9. Inhalants

Inhalants Use Among Teens • 8th graders: o 2011: 7% o 2016: 3.8%. • 10th graders: o 2011: 4.5% o 2016: 2.4%. • 12th graders: o 2011: 3.2% o 2016: 1.7%.Inhalants is the name for the group of substances that are abused by sniffing, snorting or huffing fumes:16

  • Directly from a bottle.
  • From a soaked cloth.
  • From a balloon.
  • Sprayed from an aerosol container.

As surprising number of liquid or gas items are abused for their intoxicating effects, with most of these substances being legal and available in many homes and businesses. Examples of specific inhalants include:16

  • Gasoline.
  • Glue.
  • Nail polish remover.
  • Paint.
  • Hair spray.
  • Computer dusters.
  • Whipped cream aerosols.

As the inhalant products themselves are quite a diverse group, each exerts its effects somewhat differently from the next. In general, however, many of the inhalants serve to slow the rate of or disrupt signaling activity in the brain and rest of the body, which can lead to delayed reactions and inability to process information quickly. The results are short-lasting and quite dangerous when repeated frequently.

Why Do Teens Use Inhalants?

teen-disapproval-ratings-on-trying-inhalantsNIDA states that inhalants are one of the first substances that teens will experiment with due to their availability, easy access, and ability to create a desirable “high” that is similar to alcohol intoxication.

These substances stand apart from others because younger teens are more likely than older teens to abuse inhalants.16

They may also be appealing because they produce a quick, short-lived high that may seem less dangerous or addictive when compared to the high from other substances. Still, given these facts, the majority of teens still think trying them is a bad idea.

Effects of Inhalants

Inhalants will trigger effects like:16

  • Confusion.
  • Lack of coordination.
  • Euphoria.
  • Dizziness.

Prolonged use of inhalants can result in:16

  • Muscle weakness.
  • Damage to the heart, liver, and brain.
  • Chronic pain.

Inhalants can lead to a lack of oxygen to the brain, which can be fatal. Seizures, convulsions, and coma have also been linked to abuse of inhalants.16

Treatment for Inhalant Addiction

If your teen smells like chemicals or has stains, like from paint or glue, on their body or clothing, they may be abusing inhalants. Contact a treatment support advisor today by calling for rehab options for your teen.

Treatment will involve behavioral strategies tailored to the teen since there are no specific substance abuse interventions or strategies shown to be more effective for inhalant use.6,17

Cough suppressant Dextromethorphan pouring to a spoon


10. Dextromethorphan (DXM)

Average DXM Cases Reported to Poison Control Centers (Per Year) • All ages: 13 cases per million people • 15-19 year olds: 113 cases per million peopleMany over-the-counter medicines for coughs and colds contain the active ingredient dextromethorphan (DXM). When used as directed, the substance treats cold symptoms, but at higher doses, it can produce an intoxicating and dissociative effect.18

Abuse of cough medicine by young people is more common than many parents might think. In fact, according to the MTF survey, in 2015, cough medicines were abused by:

  • 4.6% of high school seniors.
  • 3.3% of high school sophomores.

Why Do Teens Use DXM?

DXM-containing cough medicine is an inexpensive, legal, and easy-to-obtain high, although certain states have begun to regulate its sale to minors. Teens can get it from their home or in pharmacies for a minimal fee.

Often, teens will drink the entire bottle of cough syrup and even combine it with alcohol. This combination brings an extreme intoxicating effect and has the potential to cause severe central nervous system (CNS) depression, overdose, and even death.

Effects of DXM Abuse on Teens

The effects of DXM will change depending on the dose and range from mild euphoria to intense dissociation, but abuse of this drug is associated with a number of potential dangers like:18

  • Nausea.
  • Brain damage from lack of oxygen.
  • Numbness.
  • Reduced coordination.

Treatment for DXM Addiction

With continued use, addiction to DXM is possible. If you are finding many empty bottles of cough medicine in the home, your teen may have a problem.

Those suffering from addiction to DXM may benefit from DXM treatment involving mental health and/ or substance abuse treatment to understand risks and triggers of addiction. Therapy will be the keystone of treatment since no medications exist to treatment DXM abuse or addiction.6,17

Addicted teenager getting help from her mother

Preventing Teen Substance Abuse

The best treatment for teen and adolescent substance abuse is prevention. As parent involvement plays a key role in the prevention of substance abuse, NIDA outlined 5 key points for parenting to focus on:19

  • Communication. The level of communication you have with your child will dictate the quality of the relationship. Use communication that is based on a nonjudgmental position of love and support to improve your teen’s level of honesty and comfort. Using active listening skills like nodding and asking follow-up questions will help to demonstrate your interest and understanding.
  • Encouragement. Overly focusing on the negatives and punishment will damage the relationship. Instead, emphasize the positives of your adolescent and find ways to encourage additional wanted behaviors in the future by communicating a sense of belief and pride in their capabilities.
  • Negotiation. Solving problems cannot be a unilateral act. Find ways to create balance through compromise. This way, both parties feel heard and respected.
  • Setting limits. Parents set rules and teens challenge these rules. It is an expected part of development. Choose to set limits that are appropriate for the teen and proportional to their behavior. Consequences should be clearly defined and outlined so that no one is surprised when they are enforced.
  • Supervision. It is impossible to track your child’s whereabouts at all times. Find ways to consistently check in with your teen regarding where they are and who they are with. Learn your child’s schedule to double check their status, and communicate with other parents to learn about their influences.

Addicted teen getting help from a doctor

Treatment for Teen Substance Abuse

If it is too late for prevention, you may be wondering how you can get your teen into substance abuse treatment. Though treatment options may be offered, in most situations, your teen must consent to their own treatment unless you can prove their behaviors are life-threatening. You cannot force their attendance or participation. This predicament leaves parents and loved ones with fewer opportunities to aid in the adolescent’s path towards sobriety. However, as parent you can positively influence your child to attend treatment through:

  • Open and honest communication. The first step should focus on a clear and direct explanation of your wants, concerns, and suggestions regarding your teen and the state of their substance use. Be sure to remain calm and objective as you communicate your concerns. With some teens, this low-intensity measure will be enough to spark the desire for treatment.
  • Interventions. Interventions are a highly intense and emotional strategy to encourage treatment for your adolescent. A formal intervention is a planned and detailed meeting with your teen and the important people in his or her life. Unplanned meetings should be avoided to reduce risk of additional strain on relationships. The guests discuss:20
    • The negative impact of substance use.
    • The need for active engagement in treatment.
    • The consequences of not accepting treatment.
  • CRAFT. Community Reinforcement and Family Training (CRAFT) is a long-term treatment option for concerned significant others (CSO) of someone in active addiction. Rather than targeting one meeting to trigger engagement in treatment, CRAFT utilizes a thoughtful approach that emphasizes the well-being of both the CSO and the substance user. In CRAFT, the CSO will:21
    • Improve communication.
    • Reinforce positive behaviors without reinforcing negatives ones.
    • Focus on their own self-care.
    • Mention treatment and make it available.
    • Balance preparedness with patience.

Teen and adolescent substance use is a concern for many families. Gaining information regarding substances of abuse, prevention, and treatment options are great steps towards improving the outcomes for your loved one.

For more detailed information and strategies, consider contacting a substance abuse or mental health specialist to evaluate your teen and provide treatment to make positive change. If your teen is reluctant, seek out your own treatment as a form of self-care. Watching a loved one battle addiction is a difficult position but seeking out support from family members and friends, as well as through therapy or support groups for loved ones of addicted individuals, can lessen the burden. If you need help in seeking treatment for your teen, give us a call at . We can help guide you to a program that will provide your teen the best chances of successful recovery.

Was this page helpful?
Thank you for your feedback.

American Addiction Centers (AAC) is committed to delivering original, truthful, accurate, unbiased, and medically current information. We strive to create content that is clear, concise, and easy to understand.

Read our full editorial policy

While we are unable to respond to your feedback directly, we'll use this information to improve our online help.