What Drugs Do to Teens: Bodies

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Welcome to the second in our series about how drugs affect teens. This time we will focus on the physical effects of drug use on the body. Addiction can develop in anyone, but adolescence is a time of life when individuals are more vulnerable to the impact of substance use and abuse.

In 2013, there were just over 2.8 million new users of illicit drugs. More than half (54.1%) were under the age of 18.[1] According to National Institute on Drug Abuse, high school seniors that use drugs most commonly use marijuana followed by amphetamines and prescription painkillers. This same study reveals that Adderall is the top prescription amphetamine being abused and Vicodin and OxyContin are at the top of the list of abused painkillers.[2]

Why Teens Use Drugs

There are many reasons teens experiment with illicit or unprescribed drugs including peer pressure or an attempt to deal with problems. They may start to use them socially or because a friend does and spiral out of control. As we talked about in our post about the impact of drugs on teens brains, the adolescent brain is also still developing and learning, so teens are wired to seek out new experiences and take risks.[3] But what also comes with this developing brain is a body still in progress as well. This means that the effect of teen substance abuse is that much more harmful.

Substances often fit into these categories: depressants, stimulants, hallucinogens, and opiates. So let’s break down each to see how they can impact the teen body.

How Do Depressants Affect the Teen Body?

Depressants slow down the functions of the body, including the brain, and often cause a drowsy feeling. Depressants include marijuana, Valium, Xanax, Librium, and barbiturates as well as alcohol. Their use can lower energy, slow breathing, slow heart rate, and lower body temperature.[4] They can affect your coordination and concentration and impair the ability to drive. Interestingly, marijuana can be categorized as a depressant, stimulant or hallucinogen thanks to mind-altering THC and variety of effects it can cause.[5]

How Do Stimulants Affect the Teen Body?

Stimulants speed up the brain, increase heart rate, blood pressure and breathing as well as raise body temperature.[6] They can also elevate mood and feelings of well-being. Stimulants include cocaine, methamphetamine, and amphetamine. Cocaine use can cause extreme sensitivity to sound, light and physical touch as well as headaches, convulsions, and seizures.[7] Prescription amphetamines such as Adderall, often given to treat ADHD, can also be misused when used by someone for whom it was not prescribed, or used in excess.[8] This can lead to risk of seizures, a lack of interest in eating, or decreased sleep.

How Do Hallucinogens Affect the Teen Body?

Hallucinogens, including LSD, PCP, MDMA, mescaline, and psilocybin, alter the brain and body’s perception of reality creating sensations and images that seem real. Use of hallucinogens can cause delusional thoughts and bizarre physical movement because they work on the way nerve cells communicate with one another.[9] In addition to hallucinations, LSD can increase cardiac activity and body temperature as well as loss of appetite, dry mouth and sweating.[10] MDMA, also known as Ecstasy or Molly, is a drug that acts like a stimulant by increasing energy and pleasure but alters perception and sense of reality.[11] This makes it difficult to categorize or to know how it will affect the body.

How Opiates Affect the Body

Opiates are powerful painkillers that change how the brain perceives pain. They can also produce feelings of euphoria. Opiates such as heroin, morphine, hydrocodone, oxycodone, fentanyl slow cardiac function and breathing as well as impacting nerve cells in the brain, spinal cord, gastrointestinal tract and other organs.[12] Opiates can be natural or synthetic, but all kick off the release of dopamine in the brain to control pain and create feelings of pleasure. With heroin, that rush usually comes with flushing, intense itchiness, nausea, and vomiting.[13]

Physical Dependency vs. Addiction

It’s important to make a distinction between addiction to a substance versus physical dependence. Addiction is a preoccupation to the point of obsession with obtaining a drug. It is a loss of control over its use. Physical dependency, the feeling of withdrawal if a drug is stopped suddenly, can be part of addiction or not.[14]

Any type of drug can be harmful to the body, whether it is misuse of prescribed medications or illicit substances, because of the risk factors that go along with drug use. Pride Surveys developed its Risk and Protective Factor (RPF) student perception survey, a hybrid version of the Communities That Care (CTC) Youth Survey and the Pride Questionnaire for Grades 6 to 12 to measure the risk factors that show the strongest correlation to drug use. It contains the updated Core Measures required by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) for their Drug-Free Communities Grant that went into effect February 2013 and asks about incidences of alcohol, tobacco, and other drug use plus perceptions of availability and disapproval of use from parents and friends.

The benefit of choosing a survey company is that we take the guesswork out of the surveying process to ask the difficult questions. For more than thirty years, Pride Surveys has been helping schools collect data on teen substance abuse perceptions and drug use trends in their communities through scalable survey products. We offer multiple drug-free community survey options as well as student risk perception surveys designed to help assess teen substance abuse and risk, including our student surveys for grades 6-12, and our supplemental surveys like the Drug-Free Community Survey Supplement.

Browse the different types of scalable student surveys we offer and find out why Pride Surveys is the best choice to help you survey your school. Questions? Give us a call at 800-279-6361 or contact us here.



[1] “Nationwide Trends” Retrieved 24 April, 2018 at https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/nationwide-trends

[2] “What Drugs Are Most Frequently Used by Adolescents?” Retrieved 24 April, 2018 at https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/principles-adolescent-substance-use-disorder-treatment-research-based-guide/frequently-asked-questions/what-drugs-are-most-frequently-used-by-adolescents

[3] “The Influence of Substance Use on Adolescent Brain Development.” Retrieved 19 March 2018 at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2827693/

[4] “Which Classes of Prescription Drugs Are Commonly Misused?” Retrieved 24 April, 2018 at  https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/misuse-prescription-drugs/which-classes-prescription-drugs-are-commonly-misused

[5] “Profile: Marijuana.” Retrieved 24 April, 2018 at http://www.cesar.umd.edu/cesar/pubs/marijuana.pdf

[6] “Illegal Drugs and Heart Disease.” Retrieved 24 April, 2018 at http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/Cocaine-Marijuana-and-Other-Drugs_UCM_428537_Article.jsp#.Wt8pilMvyql

[7] “What is Cocaine?” Retrieved 24 April, 2018 at https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/addiction/cocaine-use-and-its-effects#1

[8] “Prescription Stimulants.” Retrieved 24 April, 2018 at https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/prescription-stimulants

[9] “How do Hallucinogens Affect the Brain and Body?” Retrieved 24 April, 2018 at https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/hallucinogens-dissociative-drugs/how-do-hallucinogens-lsd-psilocybin-peyote-dmt-ayahuasca-affect-brain-body

[10] Ibid.

[11] “What is MDMA?” Retrieved 24 April, 2018 at https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/mdma-ecstasymolly

[12] America’s Addiction to Opioids: Heroin and Prescription Drug Use.” Retrieved 24 April, 2018 at https://www.drugabuse.gov/about-nida/legislative-activities/testimony-to-congress/2016/americas-addiction-to-opioids-heroin-prescription-drug-abuse

[13] “What is Heroin?” Retrieved 24 April, 2018 at  https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/heroin

[14] “Physical Dependence vs. Addiction.” Retrieved 24 April, 2018 at https://blogs.psychcentral.com/blog/2017/03/physical-dependence-vs-addiction/

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