As children enter into adolescence, parents are faced with new challenges such as substance use. For many teens, experimentation with substances is common for reasons such as curiosity, peer pressure, stress, and emotional struggles. Approximately half of all new drug users are under the age of 18, and according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) the majority of adults who meet the criteria for having a substance use disorder started using substances during teen and young adult years. Substance abuse is defined by the National Institute of Drug Abuse as “repeated use of substances to alleviate stress, produce pleasure, and/or avoid reality”. Misuse of substances can lead to an increased risk of physical and mental illnesses, diminished overall health and well-being, and addiction. Factors such as environment, psychology, personal experiences, and genetics can all affect the chances of teens misusing substances.

Fast Facts:

By 12th grade, about two-thirds of students have tried alcohol

Half of high school students have reported use of marijuana

Almost half of high school students have reported trying cigarettes

Substances and the Brain

Substances can have a large impact on the brain because they affect the “reward circuit” that causes dopamine to be released. Releasing dopamine causes the feeling of euphoria, which can lead to continued substance use. When substances are abused, the brain becomes less responsive to previous amounts of substances and leads to a buildup of tolerance. This causes individuals to take more substance in order to achieve the same levels of euphoria, which can lead to an addiction.

Common Substances Used by Teens:

Vaping: Vaping is the action of inhaling and exhaling aerosol from an electronic-cigarette, or e-cigarette, device. Scientists are still learning about the long-term health effects of vaping, however we do know that the e-cigarette aerosol should not be considered as just “harmless water”. The aerosol additives can expose the user and bystanders to harmful substances including nicotine, heavy metals, and cancer-causing chemicals.

Nicotine: Nicotine is a nitrogen-containing chemical with powerful effects on both the body and mind. Effects include increased heart rate, alertness, and relaxation. Using nicotine in adolescence can harm parts of the brain that control attention, learning, mood, and impulse control. It may also increase the risk for future addiction to other drugs.

Tobacco: Tobacco is an herb that contains nicotine and is used for smoking and smokeless tobacco products. Using tobacco can cause lung cancer and chronic bronchitis while also increasing the risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and pneumonia.

Opioids: Opium is a class of drugs that include both legal and illegal substances. They are typically used as pain relievers and are generally safe when following doctors’ prescriptions. However, opioids are highly addictive because they activate powerful reward centers in the brain. In 2019, nearly 50,000 people died from opioid-involved overdoses.

Alcohol: Alcohol is considered a depressant drug that affects mental processes. Excessive alcohol intake can be harmful to your health. Short-term effects include injury, violence, and alcohol poisoning. Over time, excessive alcohol use can lead to other serious health problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease, liver disease, cancer, weakened immune system, memory problems, and mental health problems.

Marijuana: Marijuana is a cannabis herb that contains the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) chemical which affects mental processes. Long-term effects of excessive use include addiction, mental health problems, chronic cough, and respiratory problems.

Common Signs of Substance Misuse:

Anxiousness, paranoia, fearfulness

Lack of motivation

Increased irritability, mood swings

Changes in personality and interests

Difficulties in relationships

Prevention Methods:

Family-based prevention: This method begins within the family home using education and communication about the dangers of substance misuse. Education and enforcement of family rules can create a successful system.

School-based prevention: This method is carried out by schools, and teaches students how to handle conflict, aggression, and communication. This method creates a safe environment for students and helps them avoid substance misuse when faced with challenges.

Community-based prevention: This method begins within the community and is carried out by a group of diverse individuals to combat substance misuse through awareness and education.

Benefits of Quitting Substance Misuse:

There are many benefits an individual can experience from quitting substance misuse. First, individuals can improve financial stability by saving large amounts of money and maintaining a good relationship with employers. Quitting will also improve personal relationships with family, friends, and partners. Quitting can potentially increase lifespan and improve quality of life by improving both physical and mental health. Finally, quitting substances can reduce environmental waste by stopping cigarette butts, e-cigarette cartridges, and other products from entering into ecosystems.

Treatment methods:

Behavioral counseling


Evaluation of co-occurring conditions

Long-term follow up care to prevent relapse

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Helpline:

1-800-662-HELP (4357)


American Addiction Centers. (2021, July 15). Drug Prevention. Retrieved from:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, April 28). About Electronic Cigarettes. Retrieved from:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, May 11). Alcohol Use and Your Health. Retrieved from:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, July 7). Quick Facts on the Risks of E-cigarettes for Kids, Teens, and Adults. Retrieved from:

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2021, April). Cigarette and Other Tobacco Products. Retrieved from:

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020, August 20). Commonly Used Drug Charts –Marijuana. Retrieved from:

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2021, March 11). Opioid Overdose Crisis. Retrieved from:

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018, June). Understanding Drug Use and Addiction Drug Facts. Retrieved from:

Written by Dietetic Intern Mikayla Jekabsons and MSU Extension Agent Ensley Howell.

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