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A Parent's Guide to Protecting Teens' Health & Safety

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

Adolescents will have many new experiences and encounter many unfamiliar situations as they mature and become adults. While parents cannot always control everything that happens to their children, there are many things that parents can do to prepare them for these unpredictable events and to increase their safety and well-being. This section will discuss several ways that parents can help youth learn to take precautions to protect their health and promote their own personal safety.

Protecting Teens from Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other Drugs

teens drinking on beachBefore parents can provide guidance to their youth, parents themselves must be fully aware of the risks and dangers associated with tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs. Unfortunately, in some communities and cultures smoking, drinking, and using drugs are considered "normal" and are accepted as teenage rites of passage. While it is reasonable to expect that youth may want to experiment with new experiences, and may rebel somewhat during their teen years, illicit drug use of any kind (alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs or substances that alter someone's mood and/or functioning) should not be considered a healthy or acceptable practice. In fact, it's best if youth can abstain from using tobacco, alcohol, and drugs entirely or at least delay experimentation as long as possible. Parents need to be aware of the many risks associated with teen smoking, drinking, and substance use.

Understanding the Risks of Adolescent Drug Use

Some substance use can have an immediate, rapid, onset that can damage youths' health. Smoking any substance, (including tobacco, marijuana, "crack" cocaine, heroin, PCP, and other drugs) can cause shortness of breath, increased risk for respiratory infections, and other breathing problems. Alcohol, prescription medications, over-the-counter (OTC) drugs, and illegal drugs such as cocaine, ecstasy, and heroin can cause a wide variety of immediate health problems. These drugs can have significant side effects and drugs used together can cause dangerous drug interactions and even death. These immediate health problems can include rapid, unsafe changes in blood pressure, nausea, vomiting, strokes, organ damage, heart attacks, or neurological damage including damage to the central nervous system or even permanent brain damage. Other immediate health effects can be so dangerous that they're deadly on first use. Huffing, or using inhalants, can cause death the first time a youth uses it, as can heroin and cocaine.

Continued drug use over a longer period of time causes a great deal of damage to one's health. Long-term tobacco use (cigarette, cigars), and marijuana use can significantly increase a person's risk for lung cancer. Use of oral or "chewing" tobacco isn't any safer than smoked tobacco, as it can cause oral cancers, such as tongue or gum cancers. Furthermore, all types of tobacco use as well as some other drugs can cause dental problems with long-term use. Long-term tobacco use can also increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Likewise, long-term overuse of alcohol can also put a person at risk for liver damage, diabetes, and heart disease. Long-term use of heroin can cause heart infections and increases the risk for other diseases. As well, the use of unsterile syringes used to inject drugs can increase the user's risk for incurable viral infections such as Hepatitis and HIV/AIDS.

Fatal drug overdose (including fatal alcohol poisoning) can be both a short-term and long-term risk. Fatal over-dose can occur during first use, or after a long period of continued use. If youth have never experimented with a drug before, they may start with too high dose the first time, without realizing it, and overdose immediately; but, because illicit street drugs are not regulated even experienced drug users can overdose because the potency of drugs is very variable. Fatal drug overdose can also occur because the pleasurable effects of alcohol and other drugs motivate the user to use more and more which increases the risk of overdose. For example, after youth have consumed one or two drinks and enjoy the pleasurable effects, they may be more likely to continue drinking more drinks, to drink stronger drinks, or to drink faster, all of which can lead to alcohol poisoning. Sometimes fatal overdose occurs because of drug interactions. When some drugs are used together, even in very small quantities, the effect on the body exponentially increases. This is called the potentiating effect. This is a particular problem when combining two depressant drugs such as alcohol and opiate drugs (heroin, cough syrup).

When youth use any drug to the point that they are "high," this indicates their brain functioning has been affected. Among its many functions, the brain serves to regulate emotion and impulsive behavior. Furthermore, the brain enables people to assess risk, and to apply good judgment when assessing risks. Thus, when drug use produces a "high" the brain has been affected and places the user at greater risk for engaging in impulsive, risky behaviors such as engaging in unprotected sex (leading to an unplanned pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV/AIDS, gonorrhea, or genital warts); thrill seeking behaviors such as unsafe driving and swimming or diving in dangerous places; or responding to "dares" to perform illegal, risky behavior. Drug use also affects the brain's ability to coordinate movements and alters the body's response time. People who are intoxicated are much more likely to sustain an injury due to a fall or other accident, and hundreds of youth die every year from drug-related, accidental falls, burns, or drowning (family guide (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Surgeon General, 2007). Similarly, drugs alter the body's ability to detect pain and injury. People do not feel the same degree of pain and alarm when they are intoxicated; therefore, they are less likely to attend to an injury and often fail to seek immediate medical attention when such attention could be life-saving.