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Straight talk about drugs

Two pill capsules.

Drugs may seem to be everywhere you turn. You probably hear about them in movies, on TV, in the news, or even at school. It can seem like everyone is using them. But did you know that most teens don’t use drugs?

It can be hard to understand exactly what drugs are, why people use them, and what they do to your body. It can all feel overwhelming and confusing. But you can learn a lot about what’s out there — and about saying “no” to drugs even in the face of pressure.

What are drugs? arrow top

Drugs are chemicals that change the way your brain and body work. Drugs can be swallowed, inhaled, smoked, or injected. Whichever way you take drugs, they end up in your blood and go to all parts of your body.

Many drugs are illegal. That means it’s against the law not just to sell them but also to have or use them.

The truth about illegal drugs arrow top

  • Positive feelings from drugs wear off, but drugs can cause life-long damage to your body.
  • Many drugs are addictive, which means it can be really hard to quit.
  • Drugs affect the way you think, making it harder to make safe choices and protect yourself in dangerous situations.
  • Drug use can lead to unhealthy sexual practices, such as having sex before you are ready or not asking if your partner has a sexually transmitted infection. Or, you may have sex without using a condom, which can put you at risk for getting HIV.
  • Sharing needles and other equipment for injecting drugs can spread HIV and other dangerous infections. Learn more about the link between drugs and HIV.
  • Drugs are not meant to be in your body. You could become really sick or maybe even die.
  • Not only are drugs bad for your health, they can change your looks dramatically! One of the effects that long-term meth users report is “crank bugs.” A user may feel like there are bugs under her skin, so she keeps scratching at them until she’s scarred with sores and blisters.

What’s the difference between “drugs” and “medicines”? arrow top

Want to learn more about drugs? Check out our glossary of specific drugs and their effects. And a cool Web site has games, true stories, and more.

“Medicines” are what you take when you’re sick or injured. Some, like the ADHD medications Adderall and Concerta, require a prescription from a doctor. Others are over-the-counter medicines, like aspirin or cough syrup, that you can buy without a prescription.

The word “drugs” can be more confusing. Some people use it to mean illegal drugs that a doctor would never prescribe, like heroin or cocaine. Other people use it to mean both medicines and illegal drugs.

Here on, we use “drugs” to mean illegal drugs. Keep in mind, though, that prescription and over-the-counter medicines can be just as harmful — and deadly — as illegal drugs if you use them in ways that they are not meant to be used.

Be smart about prescription and over-the-counter medicines arrow top

Prescription medicines are ordered for you by a doctor to help with an injury or health problem. You may think that because doctors prescribe these medicines, they must be pretty safe. Maybe you even think it’s okay to pop some to stay awake or get high. But the truth is that prescription medicines can be very dangerous if they’re not used right. Check out these tips to stay safe:

  • Always take prescription medicine in the way that your doctor tells you to.
  • Never take someone else’s prescription medicine or share your medicine with someone else. This isn’t safe, and it isn’t legal.
  • Don’t mix prescription medicines and alcohol. They can be a deadly combination.

You don’t need a doctor’s prescription to buy over-the-counter (OTC) medicines. They’re often used for pretty basic problems, like colds and headaches. You can get them easily at pharmacies and grocery stores. But that doesn’t mean they’re always right for you. Be smart about OTC medicines:

  • Don’t take over-the-counter medicines without talking to your parent or guardian first.
  • Always follow the directions on the package, unless your doctor gives you other instructions. If you misuse them, some OTC medicines can be addictive and dangerous.
  • Never use an OTC medicine to get high. Some young people have been doing this with cough and cold medicines that have dextromethorphan (also known as DXM or Dex) in them. This medicine is safe when used the way the package says, but if you take too much, you can throw up, have trouble breathing, and develop other very serious problems. Watch videos and learn more about what DXM does. Also, be aware that people sometimes buy cold medicines that have pseudoephedrine in them to then make the dangerous illegal drug methamphetamine. This drug is highly addictive and can be deadly.

To learn more about prescription medicines, check out our drug glossary.

Drugs and medicines on the Internet arrow top

It’s smart to avoid dangerous drugs and medicines no matter where they come from. But buying on the Internet has its own special problems.

  • Lots of online companies sell medicines, including over-the-counter items you could get in a drugstore. Plenty of these companies are honest. Some, though, sell fake or unsafe medicines made with awful stuff like antifreeze. Make sure to talk to an adult before ordering online.
  • Some Web sites will sell you prescription medicine even if you don’t have a prescription. Others will sell you a prescription. Remember, prescription medicine is safe only if a doctor who knows you says it’s right for you.
  • You might be tempted to buy illegal drugs on the Internet. It can seem so private and easy. Don’t be fooled, though. It’s always against the law to own these drugs.

Know when there’s a problem arrow top

Two girls wearing denim jackets chatting.How do you know a friend has a problem with drugs? Your friend may:

  • Think drugs are the solution to all problems
  • Spend a lot of time figuring out how to get drugs and how to get money to buy drugs
  • Have unusual mood swings — she may be overly anxious, depressed, or irritable
  • Have dropped out of regular activities and started hanging out with a group of drug-using friends
  • Have stopped coming to school regularly
  • Changed their sleep habits
  • Lost or gained a lot of weight
  • Look sick, tired, or even messy
  • Seem to be taking more and more of the drug to get the same effect

If a friend shows some of these signs, you can get help! Turn to your parents, teachers, counselors, or any adult you trust. Although you may be concerned about possibly getting your friend into trouble, the most important thing is to get help so that she can turn her life around — and maybe even save it.

If you think you may have a drug problem, don’t let embarrassment or fear stop you from getting the support you need. There are a lot of ways to get help.

What is addiction? arrow top

People sometimes toss around the word “addiction” and say things like “I’m addicted to chocolate.” But what does it really mean to be addicted to drugs?

People who are addicted to a drug will have a very strong urge or craving for it. In fact, they often will use lots of their time, energy, and money to get the drug. And they’ll do that even though they know the drug is hurting them — and even though they may be trying really hard to stop.

What makes this happen? Usually, the decision to take drugs is a choice at first. But then the person’s brain changes. It starts sending strong messages to take the drug and changes the person’s ability to use self-control. The changes in the brain also can mean the person needs more of the drug to get the same effect. And it may mean that if they stop taking the drug, they have “withdrawal symptoms,” or very uncomfortable feelings, such as headaches and vomiting.

Addiction can be treated, though. Learn more about getting help.


You are too strong, beautiful, smart, and valuable to waste your life on drugs!


Content last reviewed May 18, 2010
Page last updated October 31, 2013