Do you live with a teenager? If you do, the chances are that you’ve wondered about their drug use.

It’s not a secret that drug use is a big problem in teens, especially in the age of vaping.

In fact, the number of 12th-graders vaping cannabis doubled in a single year. 

As more teens vape cannabis, the rates of smoking have increased, too. Around 1 in 7 teens report having used marijuana in the last month. 

Above: A young girl lights a cannabis pipe in Austin, Texas. (Via Grav/Unsplash)

While cannabis is the top culprit for drug use in teens, other drugs are a problem, too.

Those include:

  • Prescription drugs, including Vicodin, Oxycodone, and more

  • Over-the-counter drugs, such as Benadryl, NoDoz, or cough syrup

  • Homemade highs, such as huffing whipped cream canisters or swallowing huge amounts of nutmeg (not ever recommended!)

  • Alcohol, which is hard to buy underage, so teens may drink hand sanitizer or flavor extracts that contain alcohol

Here’s what you need to know about the most-used drugs by teens:

What’s the #1 Illicit Drug in Teens?

In 2019, cannabis was the most-used illicit drug in teens.

That could be a result of 2 recent trends:

  • Changing attitudes about cannabis
  • Vaping as the most popular way to use cannabis
Above: 10th graders used cannabis at record rates last year. (Via National Institutes on Drug Abuse)

Last year, 22.3% of high school seniors reported using cannabis.

The same year, 18.4% of 10th graders and 6.6% of 8th graders said that they’d used cannabis in the last month.

The rate stayed mostly stable for seniors, but 10th and 8th graders used cannabis at much higher rates than the year before.

What’s the #1 Prescription Drug in Teens?

Many prescription drugs have appeal to teens, especially opioids and stimulants.

Opioids treat severe pain while stimulants treat sleeping problems (like narcolepsy) and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Pain, fatigue, and ADHD are all common American problems. That means there are millions of these prescriptions in medicine cabinets around America.

It’s surprising how many teens have access to prescription drugs. Even though these drugs treat medical problems, there’s still a potential for harm, including addiction, overdose, and death.

Vicodin is the most abused prescription drug by teens. A Monitoring the Future study found that almost 10% of high school seniors have abused Vicodin.

This drug is an opioid pain medication with risks that include respiratory failure, coma, and death.

What’s the #1 Over-the-Counter Drug in Teens?

Last year, cough syrup was the #1 over-the-counter (OTC) drug in teens.

Around 3% of teens report using cough syrup to get high. This is called robotripping if the main ingredient in the cough syrup is DXM or dextromethorphan. It can cause euphoria and hallucinations.

If the cough syrup contains codeine and promethazine, then teens may mix it with soda for a drug called purple drank.

What’s the #1 Homemade High in Teens?

In 2019, inhalants were the #1 homemade high for teens.

Inhalants refer to the gases found inside propulsion canisters. Some teens hoard these canisters to inhale the vapors inside.

These gases can cause a strong euphoria in seconds, but they also come with risks.

The high only lasts a few seconds, so some teens re-dose over and over again. This can cause oxygen deprivation, seizures, and death.

Teens can suffocate or overdose on the toxic gases that inhalants contain. Up to 125 people die from inhalant use every year.

The most popular types of inhalants include:

  • Dusters, or difluoroethane that you inhale from a computer keyboard duster canister
  • Whips, or nitrous oxide inhaled from a whipped cream canister

Above: Teen inhalant use dropped from 2017 to 2018 but rose again last year. (Via National Institutes on Drug Abuse)

Other homemade highs included:

  • Alcowhips, or alcohol-infused whipped cream
  • Morning glory seeds, which can make you hallucinate when brewed into a tea
  • Nutmeg, which can cause delirium when eaten in huge amounts

What’s the #1 Way Teens Use Alcohol? 

Teens can’t buy alcohol in the traditional sense, so anything that is readily available to them can become a choice of alcohol.

Common ways that teens use alcohol include:

  • Beer
  • Wine
  • Hard Liquor

Uncommon ways that teens use alcohol include: 

  • Hand sanitizer
  • Flavorings and extracts, such as vanilla extract
  • Mouthwash

The alcohol content in these products tends to be low. Teens may need many bottles of hand sanitizer or extract to get their desired effect. 

Teens also try to get drunk on rubbing alcohol or other solvents. 

This is extremely dangerous! Teens can overdose on alcohol more quickly than developed adults. Solvents contain unsafe amounts of alcohol.

What Are the Signs of Drug Use in Teens?

Are you worried about how to recognize drug abuse in your teen?

There’s no blanket list of signs for all kinds of drug use. It takes a watchful eye and attention to detail to notice this behavior much of the time.

Still, here are the signs your teen may be abusing the most popular drugs, including:

  • Cannabis
  • Vicodin
  • Cough syrup
  • Inhalants
  • Alcohol

What Are the Signs of Cannabis Use in Teens?

If your teen is using cannabis, you may notice signs such as:

  • A persistent cough
  • Red eyes
  • Resin in sinks, which looks like tarry black or brown goo and comes from rinsing pipes
  • Smell of smoke
  • Skunky odor

You may see some behavioral changes in your teen, too.

Sometimes cannabis use causes motivation problems in young people. You may see your teen become withdrawn and less interested in things they used to enjoy.

What Are the Signs of Vicodin Abuse in Teens?

Some teens find it easy to hide a pill problem since there’s no smell and no paraphernalia.

Instead of looking for physical evidence of pills, you might need to look for behavioral signs of opioid abuse.

Vicodin is an opioid that causes effects such as:

  • Euphoria
  • Nodding, or slipping in and out of consciousness
  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Sleepiness
  • Slow breathing

Vicodin contains acetaminophen, which causes liver damage in large amounts. This can cause permanent health problems, including overdose and death.

What Are the Signs of Cough Syrup Abuse in Teens?

The signs of cough syrup abuse in teens include:

  • Eyes moving rapidly
  • Delirium
  • Delusions
  • Hallucinations
  • Poor coordination
  • Sleepiness
  • Vomiting

You might see your home’s supplies of cough syrup dwindle. Check bottles and amounts regularly if a teen in your house might be abusing DXM or codeine-promethazine.

DXM cough syrup is neurotoxic. That means it can cause seizures, psychosis, and permanent brain damage. Overdosing on DXM can cause a coma and death.

What Are the Signs of Inhalant Abuse in Teens?

The signs of inhalant abuse include:

  • Chemical smells on your teen’s breath, clothing, or hands
  • Empty spray containers and soaked rags
  • Nausea and lack of interest in food
  • Skin stains on the face or hands
  • Stains on clothes

Inhalants can cause permanent brain damage in teens. You may see behavioral changes like:

  • Coordination problems
  • Depressed mood
  • Inattention
  • Irritable mood
  • Lack of motivation

What Are the Signs of Alcohol Abuse in Teens?

You can recognize alcohol abuse in teens by a few signs. They include:

  • Agitated behavior
  • Empty bottles or cans hidden away
  • Spurts of sociable behavior followed by low mood
  • Smell of alcohol on clothes or breath
  • Nausea and vomiting

The “alcohol flush” is a response that happens in some people, but not all. It looks like an intense reddening of the face.

If your teen is abusing alternative sources of alcohol, like solvents or hand sanitizer, then you may find empty packaging for those items.

How Can I Lessen My Teen’s Risk for Drug Use?

There are some factors that lessen a teen’s risk factors for drug use.

Those include:

  • A good parent-child relationship: Being emotionally close with your child strengthens the parental bond. Research shows that children who report strong bonds with parents are less likely to use drugs. You can lessen your child’s risk by spending more time with them, asking questions about their days, and taking the time to get to know them.
  • Strong family and community connections: Just like strong parental bonds lessen risk, so do other types of bonds. Teens who are active in their communities are less likely to abuse drugs. The presence of extended family, church communities, and school communities can lessen your child’s risk.
  • The presence of parents at home when the teen is home: Most teen drug abuse happens in an empty house. Merely being home in time for dinner can lessen your child’s risk. Your presence is a deterrent, but kids are also less likely to abuse drugs if they know you’re always home when they need you.
  • Less access to substances in the house, including prescription drugs, alcohol, or OTC drugs: Parents should discard any unused narcotic drugs. Most police stations and pharmacies will take pills for safe disposal with no questions asked. Lock up drugs and alcohol in the home, even seemingly safe medications like Benadryl.

These simple changes can make your teen less likely to abuse drugs in your home.

But don’t wait until they’re a teenager to start! These are changes that every parent should make long before their child gets old enough to think about using drugs. Middle school isn’t too early!

Get Treatment for Teen Drug Use Today

Are you ready to help your teen take back their life? Whether it’s alcohol abuse or inhalants, use our directory to search for a rehab near you

We use evidence-based treatments that include:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy: This kind of therapy helps teens learn how their thoughts relate to their behavior. This gives them control over their addiction. 
  • Dialectical behavior therapy: Many kids use drugs to escape from stressful moments. DBT teaches you to stay in the moment and cope in healthy ways, rather than turning to substances. 
  • Medication-assisted treatment: Some people who are recovering from opioids need medication to control their withdrawal symptoms. These drugs aren’t the right choice for everyone, but they can make the difference between recovery and relapse. 

Your treatment may also include daily check-ins, group therapy, and individual counseling. 


  1. Monitoring the Future: Annual Survey of Teen Drug Use. (2020)
  2. Adolescent Health Highlight: Use of Illicit Drugs. (2013) 
  3. Teen Prescription Drug Abuse: A Major Health Concern. (April 2009)
  4. Guidelines for Determining Inhalant Deaths. (n.d.)
  5. Dextromethorphan: Preventing Teen Cough Medicine Abuse (n.d.)

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