Futures Recovery Healthcare

3 Legal but Dangerous Drugs Teens Are Using


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Teenagers and young adults are the future of our nation. Today’s teens and young adults face new and unprecedented challenges as well as stressors. Turning to both legal and illegal drugs to escape or blow off steam is becoming more common amongst teens and young adults. It’s important to know which drugs are most commonly used by teens, the warning signs of use, and how to get your teen or young adult help. 

Some of the most common drugs used by teens are actually legal. From spice to over-the-counter cold medications, teens commonly misuse substances that are legal. This can make it more difficult for parents and caregivers. Not only are these drugs easier to get, but unsuspecting parents may also miss warning signs of abuse. And as use amongst teens and young adults grows, it’s more important now than ever to know when a teen or young adult is abusing drugs and how to get them help. 

According to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, the number of eighth-graders who used drugs increased 61%% from 2016 to 2020. In addition, the same center reports that teen drug use is a national public health concern with one in nine teens abusing an illicit substance in the last year. One of the reasons it’s so vital to quickly recognize teen drug use and abuse is that the teenage brain is more detrimentally impacted by drug use. 

How Drugs Affect the Teenage Brain 

When anyone uses drugs it impacts how the brain works and how parts of the brain work together. The longer an individual—teen, young adult, or adult—uses a substance, the greater the risk of damage. Sometimes the damage caused by drug use is irreversible. Teens are particularly susceptible to certain detrimental effects from drug use because parts of their brains are still developing. 

There are three main areas of the brain that are impacted by using and abusing drugs including over-the-counter, prescription, and other legal medications. These areas are: 

1. The brain stem

This part of the brain is in charge of all of the functions that keep the body going like breathing, moving, and digesting food. It also lets the brain know what is happening to the body. 

2. The limbic system

This vital system helps to make connections in the brain that are in charge of emotions. This includes feelings of pleasure that come from engaging in certain activities. When the person experiences these pleasurable feelings they are motivated to repeat the behavior or activity so they can experience these feelings again. 

3. The cerebral cortex

This is the outer part or grey matter of the brain and makes up about three-quarters of the entire brain. The frontal cortex is the part of the brain that helps people to think, solve problems, and make decisions. 

When substances are put into the body these chemicals can alter how the brain sends, receives, and processes messages. Drugs work in the brain by either imitating the natural chemical messages or by overstimulating the brain’s reward circuit. Because a teenager’s brain is not fully developed, it can impact the brain in more serious ways. The teen’s brain can send stronger or louder messages resulting in them feeling more intense feelings of pleasure. 

Additionally, teens and young adults can feel negative emotions such as anxiety and depression more intensely making them more susceptible to seek ways, such as drugs, to relieve these uncomfortable feelings. This also means that when teens use drugs or alcohol their brains are more susceptible to wanting to repeat the activity and stimulate the reward circuit. 

It has also been found that teens can be more vulnerable to long-lasting and permanent damage in the brain from drugs. It’s vital to identify both substance and alcohol misuse in teens and get them the right treatment if there is a dependency or addiction that has developed. Today’s teen has access to more types of substances—both legal and illicit—making it even easier for them to become dependent. 

3 Legal Substances that Teens Are Misusing 

Research and data reveal that about 50% of all teens have misused a drug at least once. When it comes to teens and drug use, it’s important to understand that even misuse of a drug such as cold medicine can lead to dangerous side effects as well as addiction. Recognizing the drugs most commonly used by teens and their side effects is vital in helping this vulnerable population. 

Spice or K2

This dangerous but legal drug is a mix of herbs and man-made chemicals which cause psychotropic or mind-altering effects. Teens often refer to spice as fake weed because it looks similar to marijuana and also has similar side effects. However, unlike marijuana, chemicals often sprayed on the plant leaves in spice can be highly addictive and dangerous. Sellers of this drug try to say it is natural and harmless but in reality, this is a dangerous drug. 

Over-the-counter (OTC) drugs 

Over-the-counter drugs are those that are sold at drugstores or grocery stores. You don’t need a prescription to get these drugs but in some cases, you need to be over 18 years old. Teenagers most commonly misuse cough or cold medicines as well as diet medications. Some cough and cold medicines contain chemicals that can be mind-altering when misused. Two of the most common are cough and cold medications misused are: 

  • Dextromethorphan (DXM) cough medications 
  • Promethazine-codeine cough syrup

The practice of mixing Promethazine-codeine cough syrup with soda or alcohol produces a substance referred to as ‘lean’. Many times teens consume this to get ‘high’. This has become increasingly popular since the 1990s. 

Additionally, otc drugs used to lose weight can be used for their stimulant effects. Teens have easy access to these drugs available at drugstores. And while these are legally sold drugs, they can also have dangerous side effects, particularly when misused. 


Inhalants are commonly used products found in the household and the workplace. These products are inhaled by individuals in order to get ‘high’. Inhaling these substances is highly dangerous. Dangerous side effects including death can occur even with one use. Inhalants can be of several different types. These are: 

  • Volatile solvents

These include paint thinner, gasoline, and art supplies such as markers and correction fluids. 

  • Aerosols

These include hair spray, spray paint, and others. 

  • Gases

These include butane lighters, whipped cream dispensers, and propane tanks. They also include medical products like chloroform and laughing gas. 

While addiction to inhalants isn’t common it can happen. Of even greater risk are the dangerous side effects that can occur after just one use. From sudden sniffing death to asphyxiation inhalants are dangerous and can lead to death. 

No matter which type of drug a teen is using, it’s important to understand that the brain can be impacted in very detrimental and sometimes lasting ways. When you know what signs of addiction a teen to look for, you’ll be better equipped to help. 

Signs of Addiction in Teens 

The signs of addiction in teens are similar to the signs of addiction in adults. When an individual becomes addicted to drugs or alcohol there are often changes in behaviors and habits. Here are some signs to look for: 

  • Changes in school or work habits such as lower grades, missing school or work, or changes in friends at either place. 
  • Ceased or decreased interest in activities such as sports or hobbies are another sign. 
  • Changes in friend groups and social behaviors such as beginning to isolate or disappearing for long periods of time. 
  • Mood swings
  • Lying
  • Lethargy
  • Poor memory 
  • Concentration problems
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Unexplained nausea and vomiting
  • Unexplained weight changes
  • Being sick frequently
  • Poor hygiene
  • Bloodshot eyes

The longer and more often these signs occur, the more likely the teen is to be using and possibly abusing drugs or alcohol. If you suspect a teen in your life is using drugs it’s imperative to get them help. Many of the same treatment approaches that work for others with substance or alcohol use disorders are also effective for teens. 

Treatment for Teens with Substance or Alcohol Use Disorders

There are several evidence-based therapies that are effective in treating both substance use and alcohol use disorders (SUD and AUD). These therapies are helpful for people of all ages and backgrounds who want to stop using drugs or alcohol. 

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical-behavioral therapy (DBT) are both leading types of psychotherapies used in addiction treatment. In addition to the types of psychotherapy used, there are also different types of sessions. Group therapy, individual therapy, and family therapy are all types of sessions often used in AUD and SUD treatment. 

When it comes to teens and treatment for addiction, family therapy can be very important. Oftentimes the teen must work through family dynamics and potential triggers in order to build a solid foundation in recovery. As mentioned, teens today have enormous stressors and can be more inclined than adults to try to find ways—including drugs and alcohol—to relieve that stress. It’s vital that teens have support systems outside of clinical treatment in order to help them find long-lasting recovery.

If you’re a teen (or someone who cares about a teen)  who thinks you may have an issue with one of these drugs discussed or any other substance, there is help and hope. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers a treatment service locator which can help you find appropriate treatment facilities across the United States. In addition, Futures Recovery Healthcare can help you find the resources you need to get the right treatment. Learn more about Futures’ programming online or call 866-804-2098.


Call us now to schedule an in person or online consultation.

call now CALL NOW
(866) 351-7588
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