Child Crime Prevention & Safety Center

Drugs and Alcohol - Effect on Physical Health

Juvenile justice systems nationwide are currently dealing with a significant increase in the number of minor offenders who abuse drugs and alcohol. Substance abuse in young people has been shown to be associated with a number of harmful consequences. One of the most significant consequences is the effect that drug and alcohol use can have on a minor’s physical health.

Effect on Adolescent Brain Development

Experts used to believe that the human brain reached its maximum growth during childhood, however recent research has shown that the brain continues to develop until a person turns 25. Alcohol and drug consumption during this formative period can have long-term physical effects.

Studies have shown that alcohol consumption affects the hippocampus area of the brain and can lead to irreversible changes in the brain. Alcohol and drugs can interfere with a young person’s memory, which can have clear implications for academic performance. In addition, drug and alcohol affect the myelination process in minors, which helps stabilize and speeds brain functions. Disruption of the myelination process can cause cognitive deficiencies and disorders. Drug and alcohol use also interferes with optimal brain functioning. Chronic abuse can prevent minors from advancing to more complex areas of thinking and socializing and addicted minors often perform lower on memory tests and have reduced planning abilities.

Drug and Alcohol-Related Mental Health Disorders

Drug and alcohol use occurring during adolescence has been shown to increase the likelihood that the minor will have chronic alcohol and drug addiction in later life. In addition to the increased chance of addiction, alcohol use can lead to depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders and can exacerbate these conditions for minors who already suffer from mental health disorders. Serious addicts can face withdrawal symptoms if use is stopped suddenly. For these minors, it is critical that medical professionals be involved in the treatment process to help manage the minor’s withdrawal symptoms.

Risky Sexual Behavior and Sexually Transmitted Diseases

Studies have shown a clear link between drug and alcohol use in minors and risky sexual behavior. Juveniles who drink alcohol or who use drinks have been shown to engage in sexual intercourse while under the influence, to have sex at an earlier age, to have multiple sexual partners, to engage in unprotected sex, to contract sexually transmitted diseases at a higher rate, to have unplanned pregnancies and to have babies who suffer from Fetal Alcohol Spectrum and other birth defects.

Safety Consequences of Youth Drinking and Drug Use

Alcohol and drug use in juveniles will often lead to impaired decision making, risky behavior, and poor coordination. This can often place minors in direct physical danger.

Young people who abuse drugs or alcohol may not be able to judge their limits. As a result, alcohol poisoning and drug overdoses are both very common with young people under the age of 18. Alcohol poisoning can occur when a person engages in binge drinking or consumes a large amount of alcohol in a short period of time. It is estimated that around 50,000 young people suffer from alcohol poisoning each year and many die as a result of these incidents. Teenagers and college students are often most likely to engage in binge drinking, and there have been recent highly publicized cases of fatal binge drinking incidents.

In addition, drug overdoses account for a large number of deaths each year, many of whom are minors under the age of 18. Juveniles may mix drugs or take unknown doses and suffer accidental overdoses.

In addition, alcohol and drug consumption is responsible for a great number of accidental injuries and deaths in young people each year and are just as prevalent as alcohol deaths involving motor vehicles. Approximately 7,000 young people under the age of 21 die from alcohol-related injuries every year, including drowning, burns, and falls. This number represents 44 percent of all unintentional deaths linked to drugs and alcohol for those under the age of 21.