When overdose deaths are mentioned, adults are usually the focus, not children. However, adolescents struggle with substance use issues that cause addiction and overdose. Drug and alcohol use is common among teenagers and young adults for various reasons. 

The pressures of performing well in school, fitting in with peers or self-medicating against symptoms of mental illness, whether knowingly or unknowingly, are all reasons adolescents use mind- and mood-altering substances. Some teenagers use substances because of exposure to drugs and alcohol in the home or family environment, while others just want to satisfy their curiosity and try drugs or alcohol for the first time. Teens also struggle with low self-esteem, impulsive risk-taking, and traumatic experiences, which can all lead to them abusing substances.

Whatever the reason, teen substance use is widely recognized as a health problem that shows no signs of ending. Unfortunately, drug and alcohol use, misuse, and addiction can lead to overdose, death, or permanent injury, and this is a reality they need to be aware of, whether they use substances or not.

Teen Alcohol and Drug Use Remains Public Health Problem

Substance use among teens and young people remains a critical area of concern for many reasons. The year 2020 showed some encouraging trends, but researchers say it is still unknown how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected substance use habits and mental health among the nation’s youth. Per the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the 2020 Monitoring the Future (MTF) Survey shows that most kinds of substance use among teens fell to low levels, including opioid use, which has been a problem area for several years across age groups. Still, the federal agency says substance use is hardly off the radar when it comes to young people. 

As the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) shows, drug use among adolescents is a major public health concern. According to the survey, about 17% of youth between ages 12 and 17 used illicit drugs in 2019; nearly 6% used a prescription drug that was not prescribed to them. 

NSDUH also recorded trends in adolescent alcohol use. According to the survey, 24.6% of youth between ages 14 and 15 reported that they had at least one alcoholic drink. The survey also found:

  • 11.1% (or 4.2 million young people) binge drank
  • 2.2% percent (or 825,000 people) engaged in heavy alcohol use in a one-month period

In addition to drugs and alcohol, teen and tween substance abuse can involve other addictive and harmful substances that adults should be aware of. These include:

  • Bath salts
  • Cold and cough medicine (DXM and codeine syrup)
  • Inhalants
  • MDMA (ecstasy or Molly)
  • Salvia
  • Synthetic cannabinoids (K2, Spice)
  • Steroids
  • Tobacco, nicotine, and vaping (e-cigarettes)

Overdose can also occur when users combine two or more substances, as polydrug use is a common practice. It is possible for teen overdose to result from the use of combining substances.

Teenage Overdoses Showed Sharp Increase Starting in 2015

Researchers have been monitoring substance use and drug overdose deaths among adolescents for many years. They agree that 2015 is the year that drug overdose deaths increased. Before that, drug overdose deaths among adolescents ages 15-19 more than doubled from 1999 to 2007, data from the National Vital Statistics System show. However, a reported decrease in fatal overdoses among this age group began in 2007 and continued through 2014. 

The CDC reports that most of the 2015 drug overdose deaths that occurred among male and female teenagers ages 15-19 were unintentional. According to statistics:

  • 80.4% were unintentional
  • 13.5% were death by suicide
  • 5.2% were undetermined intent; and 
  • 0.9% were homicide

Heroin, Illicit Opioid Use Linked to Rise in Teen Drug Overdose Deaths

Teen overdoses began rising in 2015, as there were 3.7 deaths for every 100,000 teenagers that year. Heroin and synthetic opioids, such as deadly fentanyl, caused many of the overdose deaths in 2015, NIDA says. 

The increase in teen overdose deaths from prescription drugs continued in 2016 and 2017 but declined in 2018. “The increase was probably due to the use (intentional or unintentional) of fentanyl,” NIDA says. 

Fatal drug overdose deaths continued in 2019. Statistics in a NIDA report show that 4,777 drug overdoses occurred in youth ages 15-24 in 2019. Most of the overdoses were among males, who numbered 3,318 deaths. Females made up the remainder at 1,459. Heroin and other illegal opioids made up the majority of the overdose deaths in this age group, data show. Other major substances for which overdose statistics were recorded are:

  • Cocaine: 850
  • Benzodiazepines (sedatives): 727
  • Common prescription opioids: 672
  • Alcohol: 109

Data are not available for all substances that youth have fatally overdosed on. This means the actual number of overdose deaths among teens could be higher. National numbers are not available for fatal overdoses involving synthetic cannabinoids (K2/Spice), and according to NIDA, there are no reports of teens or young adults fatally overdosing on marijuana alone. 

However, it has been reported that marijuana users have sought emergency room treatment after experiencing uncomfortable side effects due to consuming high THC levels in either smoked marijuana or marijuana edibles.

Non-Fatal Stimulant Drug Overdoses Among Teens Emerge as a Concern

Stimulant use among adolescents has recently emerged as a particular area of concern. A 2021 Pediatrics journal study highlights another issue concerning young people and overdose—stimulant overdose. 

Researchers studied trends in stimulant use among American youth between 2016 and 2019 and concluded that “suspected stimulant-involved drug overdoses appear to be rising among youth.” Stimulants include cocaine, methamphetamine, and prescription stimulants. The study found:

  • For suspected all-drug overdoses, there was on average a 2.0% increase for youth ages 0-10 and a 2.3% increase for youth ages 11-14.
  • Suspected heroin overdoses fell by an average of 3.3% per quarter for youth ages 15 to 24. 

The most surprising finding is that among all age groups, suspected stimulant overdoses increased across the three-year study period as follows:

  • 3.3% for 0 to 10-year-olds
  • 4.0% for 11- to 14-year-olds
  • 2.3% for 15- to 24-year-olds

The study’s researchers urge prevention efforts and targeted interventions to address stimulant use among young people. Perhaps, this approach is needed overall as substance misuse and abuse among adolescents is expected to be a challenge for the foreseeable future.

What Is an Overdose, and Why Does It Happen?


The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines overdose as “injury to the body (poisoning) that happens when a drug is taken in excessive amounts.” Anyone is susceptible to an overdose. If you have taken more than a prescribed or recommended amount of a substance to the point where you are impaired, or your body isn’t functioning normally, then you have experienced an overdose.

Overdose can happen with alcohol, illegal drugs, prescription drugs, and those sold legally over the counter. Many people who use alcohol and drugs forget these substances can become poisonous when used in high amounts, overwhelming the body. It is important to understand what overdose is and recognize when it happens. Not all overdoses are fatal, but that makes them no less dangerous.

Per Healthline, overdose is more likely to happen when:

  • Drugs are stored improperly
  • Users either do not know or follow dosage instructions
  • Users have a history of substance misuse or addiction
  • Users have a mental health disorder

Alcohol Overdose

Binge drinking, which some teens take part in, is excessive drinking. According to the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse (NIAAA), “90 percent of all alcoholic drinks consumed by young people are consumed through binge drinking.” 

Binge drinking is defined “as a pattern of drinking that brings a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 g/dl or above,” per the CDC. Males who drink five or more alcoholic drinks in two hours are binge drinking; for females, it’s four alcoholic drinks in that same span. This drinking behavior can lead to alcohol overdose.

Excessive drinking is also considered to be any amount of alcohol consumed by people under age 21, the legal drinking age in the U.S. Excessive drinking can lead to alcohol poisoning, another term for alcohol overdose. Per the CDC’s data, 109 people ages 15-24 died in 2019 due to alcohol overdose.

Alcohol overdose happens when the liver cannot efficiently process the amount of alcohol in the body. As Medical News Today advises, the liver can process 1 ounce of alcohol every hour. When the liver can’t process it, alcohol backs up into the bloodstream and circulates throughout the body, causing health issues that could become fatal.

As the CDC notes, “Very high levels of alcohol in the body can shut down critical areas of the brain that control breathing, heart rate, and body temperature, resulting in death.”

Signs of alcohol overdose include:

  • Slowed heart rate
  • Slow or irregular breathing (10-plus seconds between breaths) 
  • Confusion
  • Having trouble remaining alert, conscious
  • Seizures (which can happen due to low blood sugar levels)
  • Nausea, vomiting
  • Clammy skin
  • Lack of a gag reflex (which stops one from choking)
  • Low body temperature (hypothermia)

This is not a complete list of signs of alcohol overdose, and a person need not have all of them to experience an overdose. If a person has fewer than eight breaths per minute, they should not be left alone. Healthline advises that 911 be called for emergency treatment.

Drug Overdose

NIDA’s teen guide explains how users of various drugs can overdose. In its Q-and-A section, it explains that abuse of just about any drug can lead to an overdose. For example, it explains that overdose is possible if prescription opioids are misused and that more than 14,000 people died after overdosing on these medications in 2019.

It reports that signs of prescription opioid overdoses include:

  • Slow breathing
  • Cold, damp skin
  • Shaking
  • Blue lips and fingernails
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of consciousness or going in and out of consciousness

Naloxone is often used to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. If given in time, this drug, given as a nasal spray or autoinjector, can save someone’s life.

Stimulant Overdose

Overdosing on other drugs could bring on different signs and symptoms. As mentioned earlier, stimulant use is on the rise among the youth population in the U.S., a trend that researchers say needs monitoring. Prescription stimulant overdose looks different from a prescription opioid overdose. Per the CDC, these signs include:

  • Restlessness
  • Tremors
  • Overactive reflexes
  • Rapid breathing
  • Confusion
  • Hallucinations
  • Paranoia
  • Aggression
  • Panic states
  • Abnormally high fever
  • Muscle pains
  • Weakness
  • Heart problems 
  • Nerve problems

Emergency treatment is required to treat a stimulant overdose. If you or someone you know is experiencing any of these symptoms after using stimulants, whether legal or illegal, get help right away by calling 911. 

Preventing Teen Overdose

Educating young people about the dangers of alcohol and drug use is the most effective approach to preventing teen and tween overdose. Telling them about the dangers of all drugs, including the ones that are legal and issued on prescription or sold over the counter, is important, too. 

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), “the fastest-growing drug problem in the United States isn’t cocaine, heroin, or methamphetamines. It is prescription drugs, and it is profoundly affecting the lives of teenagers.”

It underlines some of the reasons why prescription drug misuse and abuse among youth is a problem. Among them are:

  • Young people think a legal drug is less harmful than illegal drugs that are sold on the street.
  • Teens either do not know or understand the short- and long-term effects of drugs on the body, so they use them incorrectly. Officials believe this is the case when it comes to young people misusing stimulant drugs prescribed for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

In addition to education, SAMHSA recommends that safeguarding medication stored in the home as well as disposing of it properly can deter improper prescription drug use among teens. Prescription drug monitoring on the part of doctors and pharmacies is also encouraged to prevent the overprescribing and misuse of these medications.

Getting Help for Teens, Tweens Who Use Drugs and Alcohol

Overdose on any substance could indicate a problem with substance use and/or addiction. Unintentional overdoses are common, but if they happen frequently or enough times to notice a pattern, then it is important to get the person help. Recreational drug use starts off harmless enough, but that doesn’t mean overdose won’t happen. Substance abuse also alters a young person’s judgment, decision-making, learning, memory, and behavior control. The earlier in life that a person starts using drugs and alcohol, the likelier that all these areas will be affected, which can lead to poor decisions and lifestyle choices.

In many cases, teens don’t realize the harmful effects of substance use on their bodies, particularly their brain development.  Since the brain continues to develop into a person’s mid-20s, chronic substance use can cause brain damage in young adults. Once drugs or alcohol are ingested and enter the bloodstream, their chemicals interfere with the way the brain normally sends, receives, and processes information. 

For instance, cocaine and methamphetamine cause the brain to release too much dopamine, which leads to exaggerated messages in the brain. The brain does not forget these messages, which means users will seek to repeat pleasure-seeking behaviors that ultimately lead to uncontrollable substance use and addiction.  

Signs of Teen Substance Use

If you suspect that your tween or teen is using alcohol, drugs, or another substance, there are ways to tell. You may notice the following:

  • Decline in academic performance
  • Decline in physical appearance, hygiene habits
  • Changes in your child’s peer or friend group
  • Missing classes or skipping school altogether
  • Poor judgment or increased risk-taking behavior
  • Little to no interest in hobbies, extracurricular activities
  • Different eating or sleeping habits, patterns
  • Strained relationships with family, friends
  • Increased isolation
  • Mood swings, irritability
  • Slurred speech
  • Delayed reaction times
  • Loss of coordination or motor skills
  • Memory issues
  • Inability to concentrate, focus
  • Unusual odors, such as alcohol on one’s breath or clothes

While some of these changes could be linked to puberty, it is also possible that substance use could be the issue, particularly if you see drug paraphernalia in your teenager’s room or notice medicine containers when they have no known illness. 

When Getting Professional Substance Abuse Treatment for Teens Is Next 

If you have decided to seek professional help for your teenager or tweenager’s substance use disorder (SUD), that could be the move that saves their lives and gives them a new start. Treatment for SUDs is important, but many adolescents don’t get the care they need, as discussed during a 2020 Johns Hopkins medicine podcast about teens and overdose. 

Rachel Alinsky, an adolescent medicine expert at Johns Hopkins, said during the podcast that less than 1 in 50 adolescents receive the recommended treatment after having a non-fatal opioid overdose. Alinsky also said that youth are about one-tenth as likely to receive treatment for opioid use disorder (OUD), mainly because it is not realized that OUD is recognized as a treatable disorder.

Choose an Accredited Facility That Treats SUD

Finding an accredited substance use treatment provider that specializes in helping people recover from SUDs can take some time. It is critical to find one that understands and is sensitive to people with substance use disorders. You can also seek out a program that treats the unique needs of adolescents who have SUDs and encourages families to participate in their loved ones’ recovery journey.

Your Child May Have to Start Their Recovery Program in Detox

The initial step for drug treatment and recovery is usually medical detox, particularly in those cases where substance use disorders are moderate to severe. Inpatient or residential programs offer medical detox to allow harmful drugs and toxins to filter out of the body safely as a person receives medical care for withdrawal symptoms.

Medical professionals monitor this process 24/7, ensuring the patient is comfortable and safe as they withdraw from the substances they were using. Detox is a critical period in the addiction recovery process. It allows patients to continue treatment without the possibility of relapse, a common event when people try to end their drug or alcohol use on their own without professional help.

Recovery After Detox: What Happens Next?

After detox, clients receive counseling, therapy, and possibly medication-assisted treatment to help them overcome substance abuse and addiction. They can receive these services in a long-term residential program or on an intensive outpatient or outpatient basis.

Rehab centers for teenagers employ various types of counseling for the tween or teenager and their families. These counseling methods include contingency management, motivational interviewing, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and family counseling. All programs are tailored to fit the needs of the adolescent recovering from substance misuse.

After inpatient rehabilitation, teenagers can continue their recovery through aftercare programs, including alumni programs that keep them connected to their recovery community. Aftercare programs include continued treatment and therapy offered through an outpatient program, transitional housing, and recovery support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.

Delphi Helps Families Help Their Loved Ones Find Treatment

If your teenager has experienced an overdose or is abusing substances, it is time to get them help, and Delphi Behavioral Health Group can help you do that. An accredited facility in our network can connect you with the treatment you’re seeking. We have more than a dozen treatment facilities across five U.S. states, and each of them offers personalized treatment for all levels of addiction.

Consider reaching out to us today with a phone call or online chat so that we can start working on helping you and your family find the right treatment option for your loved one. We want to help you and your family make the new start you are looking for. We can help verify your insurance benefits and figure out what services your plan covers, and discuss with you other areas of concern. You don’t have to figure this out by yourself. We’re here to help.

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