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Article Summary

Signs of Drug Use

How can you tell if a teen is involved with drugs? There are no hard and fast rules, but there are warning signs of drug use. Although some surveys suggest that drug use in teens has decreased since 2001, the numbers are still quite high. Over 17% of high school students admit to use of illegal drugs within one month of when they were asked and more than 40% of those over 12 years old say that they have tried an illegal substance at least once.

The main thing to look out for is changes in behavior, attitude, appearance, friends, or activities. Keep in mind that many of the signs and symptoms listed below may also be caused by stress, depression, or other teen problems. Whatever the cause, they may warrant attention, especially if they persist or if they occur in a cluster. Consult your family doctor or a mental health professional if your child is experiencing these signs. Getting help early on can help teens to get back on track and develop more effective coping skills, often preventing further problems.

The key is change; it is important to watch for any significant changes in your child's physical appearance, personality, attitude, or behavior.

Physical Signs of Teen Drug Use

  • Loss of appetite, increase in appetite, any changes in eating habits, unexplained weight loss or gain
  • Slowed or staggering walk, poor physical coordination
  • Inability to sleep, awake at unusual times, unusual laziness
  • Red and or watery eyes, pupils larger or smaller than usual, blank stare
  • Cold, sweaty palms or shaking hands
  • Puffy face, blushing, or paleness
  • Smell of substance on breath, body, or clothes
  • Extreme hyperactivity, excessive talkativeness
  • Runny nose, hacking cough
  • Needle marks on lower arm, leg, or bottom of feet
  • Nausea, vomiting, or excessive sweating
  • Tremors or shakes of hands, feet, or head
  • Irregular heartbeat

Behavioral Signs of Teen Drug Use

  • Change in overall attitude/personality with no other identifiable cause
  • Changes in friends, new hang-outs, sudden avoidance of old crowd, doesn't want to talk about new friends, friends are known drug users
  • Change in activities or hobbies
  • Drop in grades at school or performance at work, skips school or is late for school
  • Change in habits at home, loss of interest in family and family activities
  • Difficulty paying attention, forgetfulness
  • General lack of motivation, energy, self-esteem
  • "I don't care" attitude
  • Sudden oversensitivity, temper tantrums, or resentful behavior
  • Moodiness, irritability, or nervousness
  • Silliness or giddiness
  • Paranoia
  • Excessive need for privacy, unreachable
  • Secretive or suspicious behavior
  • Car accidents
  • Chronic dishonesty
  • Unexplained need for money, stealing money or items
  • Change in personal grooming habits
  • Possession of drug paraphernalia

Drug Specific Symptoms of Teen Drug Use

Marijuana: Glassy, red eyes; loud talking and inappropriate laughter followed by sleepiness; a sweet burnt scent; loss of interest or motivation; weight gain or loss
Alcohol: Clumsiness; difficulty walking; slurred speech; sleepiness; poor judgment; dilated pupils; possession of a false ID card
Depressants: (including barbiturates and tranquilizers) Seems drunk as if from alcohol but without the associated odor of alcohol; difficulty concentrating; clumsiness; poor judgment; slurred speech; sleepiness; contracted pupils
Stimulants: Hyperactivity; euphoria; irritability; anxiety; excessive talking followed by depression or excessive sleeping at odd times; may go long periods of time without eating or sleeping; dilated pupils; weight loss; dry mouth and nose
Inhalants: (Glues, aerosols, and vapors ) Watery eyes; impaired vision, memory, and thought; secretions from the nose or rashes around the nose and mouth; headaches and nausea; appearance of intoxication; drowsiness; poor muscle control; changes in appetite; anxiety; irritability; an unusual number of spray cans in the trash
Hallucinogens: Dilated pupils; bizarre and irrational behavior including paranoia, aggression, hallucinations; mood swings; detachment from people; absorption with self or other objects; slurred speech; confusion
Heroin: Needle marks; sleeping at unusual times; sweating; vomiting; coughing and sniffling; twitching; loss of appetite; contracted pupils; no response of pupils to light
Tobacco/Nicotine: Smell of tobacco; stained fingers or teeth

Parents who notice a shift from their child's normal patterns and behavior that cannot be attributed to the ordinary stresses of adolescence and changing level of independence should pay particular attention to their child's appearance, speech, and behavior. Their independence should not simply be allowed regardless of behavior, but should be dependent upon living up to certain basic expectations. If your teen now refuses to do chores, misses curfew regularly, creates a chaotic and hostile environment in the home, and frequently appears to be depressed, agitated, or "sleepy," you should investigate further. Maintain clear channels of communication and set clear boundaries and rules.

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