Though teenagers have abused drugs and alcohol for a long time, how they do it has evolved over the years. While alcohol and cigarettes may have been popular in the 1950s, and marijuana or LSD in the 1960s, these days, adolescents are discovering new ways to abuse common substances like alcohol, as well as non-traditional substances like cough syrup or the propellant in aerosol cans.
In this article, we’ll explore more of the current trends of teen substance abuse, including:
- Prescription medications.
- Over-the-counter substances.
- Household items.
Of all the substances adolescents abuse, alcohol is the most common: teens and young adults consume 11% of all alcohol in the U.S.1
And some of the new ways teens are abusing alcohol are somewhat bizarre:2-4
- Smoking alcohol: This practice involves pouring alcohol over dry ice, which is then inhaled directly or through a special DIY vaporizing kit. Although it may look like a game to teens, smoking alcohol can be deadly. When it is inhaled, alcohol goes straight into the bloodstream, which theoretically could allow the user to become intoxicated more quickly than drinking. Frequently, when people drink too much alcohol, vomiting occurs. This natural reaction helps to expel any alcohol remaining in the stomach, thereby minimizing further absorption and lowering the likelihood of overdose. However, when alcohol is smoked, it bypasses the digestive tract altogether. Blood alcohol levels may rise rapidly, and teens may be at greater risk of overdose and alcohol poisoning.
- Eyeballing vodka: Eyeball shots are an extreme way to get drunk by pouring vodka or other kinds of alcohol straight into the eye sockets. The corrosive nature of vodka can cause abrasions on the cornea and scar them and contribute to serious eye infections or vision loss.
- Butt chugging: This dangerous practice involves using funnels or enemas to deliver alcohol directly to the rectum. Butt chugging can result in more rapid-onset, dangerous levels of intoxication than drinking since it bypasses first-pass metabolism by the liver.
>Prescription medication abuse is a fast-growing problem for teens: for kids 14 and older, they are the third-most abused substance after alcohol and marijuana.5 These drugs are often obtained from relatives and friends or even by theft.
Some of the prescription medications teens commonly abuse include:6
- Opioids: Prescribed for pain relief, some of the most common opioids include codeine, Vicodin, and OxyContin. Several recent studies found that half of heroin users reported using prescription opioids before they started using heroin.
- Stimulants: Medications for ADHD like Ritalin and Adderall are prescribed in capsule or tablet form and are intended for oral use. Those who abuse these drugs may crush the pills and inject or snort the powder in an attempt to speed the onset of or otherwise amplify the effects of the drug. Stimulants are sometimes abused by students who want to improve their performance at school. Although they may improve temporary alertness, there is little evidence that they improve academic functioning for people that don’t have a medical condition.
- Benzodiazepines: Valium and Xanax are sedative-anxiolytic medications that are prescribed for the short-term management of anxiety. They can cause a loss of coordination and sleepiness and, when taken in excess or over extended periods of time, can lead to severe physiological dependence and withdrawal when the teen tries to quit using them.
Some over-the-counter medications have mind-altering properties when taken in ways other than their approved use. You might think that over-the-counter or prescription medications are safer than illegal drugs; however, some of the drugs in your medicine cabinet can be as dangerous as illicit drugs and put users at risk of adverse health effects.6 Common over-the-counter medications teenagers abuse include:7,8
- Cough syrup: Also called Robotripping, drinking cough syrup is a worrying trend among teenagers. One active ingredient in certain cough syrups is dextromethorphan (DXM). Some teenagers drink multiple bottles of these cough syrups to get high, which can produce dissociative effects.
- Cough syrup and alcohol: When alcohol is added to the mix, Robotripping can be even more dangerous. Adding alcohol leads to dizziness or sleepiness and may increase the risk of a fatal overdose by depressing the central nervous system, a chief danger of which is the slowing or stopping of the heartbeat or breathing.
You can lock the medicine and liquor cabinets to prevent teenage drug abuse, but teens may also use ordinary household products to get high. Common items like computer cleaning aerosols, hand sanitizer, and even pantry items like nutmeg are leading to increased emergency room admissions in some areas of the country. These substances can be hazardous when consumed and may cause:9
- Organ damage: Inhalants can damage the kidneys, heart, and lungs.
- Weakened immune system: This can make you more susceptible to getting sick.
- Brain damage: Inhalants can interfere with oxygen delivery to your brain, which can lead to brain injury and associated issues such as vision or hearing problems and seizures.
- Coma: Using inhalants can cause loss of consciousness and even coma.
- Sudden death: Inhalants can result in death from suffocation or catastrophic heart rhythm disturbances.
Some of the everyday household items that teens abuse include:10-12
- Spray paint, whipped cream, and other aerosolized items: Abusing inhalants, such as the propellant in cans of spray paint and the nitrous oxide in whipped cream canisters, is highly hazardous. Inhaling these substances can lead to lowered inhibitions, heart arrhythmias, and even death. Inhalant-related death occurs when the chemicals inhaled prevent you from breathing oxygen, effectively suffocating you.
- Hand sanitizer: Drinking hand sanitizer is becoming popular, yet it’s a very dangerous trend. Hand sanitizer contains ethanol, which is the main ingredient in spirits, wine, and beer. A few swallows of hand sanitizer can intoxicate a teen, but it can also lead to alcohol poisoning very quickly, since they may not realize how much alcohol is really in these little bottles.
- Nutmeg: This kitchen spice acts as a hallucinogen when taken in very large amounts. Overdoses are on the rise because it takes a long time to take effect and teens don’t realize what amount is dangerous for their bodies.
Even if you lock up your whole house, your teen might still find ways to get high if they want. The best thing that you can do is be aware of substance abuse trends and keep the lines of communication open with your teen. It’s vital to get help for your teen if you believe that they are using household items, prescription drugs, or alternative substances to get high—their health and life may truly depend on it.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2016). Fact Sheets—Underage Drinking.
- Time. (2013). Smoking Alcohol: The Dangerous Way People Are Getting Drunk.
- Bosmia, A.N., Griessenauer, C.J., & Tubbs, R.S. (2014). Vodka Eyeballing: A Potential Cause of Ocular Injuries. Journal of Injury & Violence Research, 6(2), 93–94.
- El Mazloum, R., Snenghi, R., Barbieri, S., Feltracco, P., Omizzolo, L., Vettore, G., et al. (2015). ‘Butt-Chugging’: A New Way of Alcohol Assumption in Young People. European Journal of Public Health, 25(3).
- National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens. (2017). Prescription Drugs.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2015). Prescription and Over-the-Counter Medications.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens. (2017). Cough and Cold Medicine (DXM and Codeine Syrup).
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2014). Harmful Interactions: Mixing Alcohol with Medicines.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens. (2017). Five Things Inhalants Can Do to Your Body.
- University of Rochester Medical Center. (2017). A Parent’s Guide to Inhalant Abuse.
- Gormley, N.J., Bronstein, A.C., Rasimas, J.J., Pao, M., Wratney, A.T., Sun, J., et al. (2013). The Rising Incidence of Intentional Ingestion of Ethanol-Containing Hand Sanitizers. Critical Care Medicine, 40(1), 290–294.
- Las Vegas Review-Journal. (2015). Unconventional Intoxicants Include Nutmeg, Choking.