By Patti Richards
Knowledge is power, and the more you know about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse, the more power you have to say “no” to substances. Drug and alcohol abuse are at epidemic levels in the United States, which means young people are at an even greater risk. Understanding the dangers of substance abuse can help protect you and your friends from serious consequences. No matter what social media, movies or television tells you about recreational drug use, the facts are the facts. Use them to make healthy choices and build a future free from addiction.
Alcohol has been part of American culture for its entire history. Other than during the prohibition era — 1920 to 1933 — it has been legal to buy, sell and drink alcoholic beverages. After prohibition, states set their own minimum drinking age requirements. In most places, that age was 21. But when the voting age was lowered to 18 in 1971, many states decided to lower the drinking age as well. When the National Institute of Health reported a dramatic increase in the number of alcohol-related car accidents, the government stepped in with the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984. For the first time since prohibition, the minimum drinking age would be regulated at the federal level.1
But even with a national drinking age of 21, alcohol is still the most commonly used and abused drug by young people in the United States. According to the US Centers for Disease Control:
- Excessive drinking is responsible for the deaths of more than 4,300 underage young people annually.
- In spite of the fact that it is illegal, young people between the ages of 12 and 20 consume 11 percent of all alcohol in the US. More than 90 percent is from binge drinking.
- Underage drinkers consume more drinks per drinking occasion than adults.
- In 2010, there were more than 180,000 alcohol-related emergency room visits, including injuries and other conditions, in people under the age of 21.2
Along with the obvious physical dangers associated with underage drinking, the risks carry over into all aspects of life. Youth who drink alcohol are more likely to:
- Experience school problems, such as higher absences and failing grades
- Have social problems like arrests for driving or hurting someone while drunk
- Suffer from hangovers or illnesses
- Experience unwanted, unplanned or unprotected sex
- Suffer from the disruption of growth and sexual development
- Be the victim of a physical or sexual assault
- Commit suicide or be the victim of a homicide
- Have alcohol-related car crashes and other injuries such as burns, falls and drowning
- Suffer from memory problems
- Abuse other drugs
- Have changes in brain development with lifelong side effects
- Die from alcohol poisoning
- Develop alcohol dependence (alcoholism) later in life than those who began drinking after the age of 21.2
Drug Abuse and Addiction
When it comes to young people and substance abuse, the problems don’t end with alcohol. In 2016, approximately 28.6 million Americans over the age of 12 used illicit drugs in the past month.3 That’s one in 10 people using drugs for reasons other than prescribed by a doctor. The categories of illicit drug use include marijuana, heroin, cocaine, stimulants, prescription painkillers, tranquilizers, sedatives, hallucinogens, inhalants and methamphetamines.
No matter where they come from, drugs are chemicals. When drugs enter the brain, they change the way the brain sends and receives messages from naturally-occurring neurotransmitters. Drugs like prescription opioids actually change the way the body perceives pain and produce feelings of euphoria. Because opioids mimic the way the brain’s neurotransmitters send and receive messages, the brain needs more of the drug to function normally. This results in drug dependence. Other drugs, like nicotine and cocaine, affect the brain’s reward system. When the brain responds to pleasure, it releases the neurotransmitter dopamine. This results in normal feelings of pleasure. When drugs are introduced, it over stimulates the brain and too much dopamine is released. This results in a “high.” With repeated use, the brain craves the experience and learns to repeat the activity over again to achieve the same results.4 As the body becomes dependent on the feelings the drug produces, it needs more to produce the same level of experience. This cycle can quickly lead to addiction.
Signs of Drug or Alcohol Abuse
If you or a friend use drugs or drink alcohol and you think you may have a problem, look for these signs of drug or alcohol abuse:
- Drinking or using drugs more than you want to, even when you want to stop
- Spending less time on activities that used to be important to you
- Taking risks, like stealing, to get and use drugs
- Acting out against those you are close to especially when someone confronts you about your drug use
- Hiding the amount of drugs or alcohol you use
- Changes in appearance, especially in the area of personal hygiene
- A family history of addiction
- Needing more of the drug to achieve the same level of experience
- Withdrawal symptoms when the drug is stopped.
- Continued use in spite of negative consequences 5
Even one of theses symptoms can signal a problem and an immediate need for help.
Finding Help for Drug and Alcohol Abuse
It’s never too late to get help for drug and alcohol addiction. Call our toll-free helpline 24 hours a day to speak to an admissions coordinator about available treatment options.
1 Devenyns, Jesse. “How the Legal Drinking Age Has Changed Over Time.” Wide Open Eats, 9 June 2017.
2 “Fact Sheets – Underage Drinking.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 20 Oct. 2016.
3 “Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.” 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, Sept. 2017.
4 “Brain and Addiction.” NIDA for Teens, Jan. 2018.
5 Wilcox, Stephen. “Signs and Symptoms.” National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, 19 Dec. 2016.