Student Health - Comprehensive Guide to Staying Healthy in College
drugs and alcohol on a table

Alcohol and Drugs

A national survey conducted in 2018 found that nearly 55 percent of college students aged 18 to 22 drank alcohol in the past month, and almost one out of three of those students engaged in binge drinking during the same time frame. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism concluded that “drinking at college has become a ritual that students often see as an integral part of their higher education experience.”

Did You know

Marijuana use has been steadily rising among college students.

In 2018, Michigan News at the University of Michigan reported that illicit drug use among college students had been steadily rising. The article attributed much of the rise to the increased use of marijuana stating that “marijuana use was at the highest level seen in the past three-and-a-half decades.”

Michigan News said that about 43 percent of all college students enrolled full time had used marijuana in the past 12 months, and 25 percent had used marijuana in the last 30 days.

Nonmedical use of amphetamines to stay awake has been decreasing on college campuses. Historically, college students used nonmedical amphetamines more frequently than other people.

Common Illicit Drugs

Other frequently used illicit drugs among college students include cocaine, LSD, ecstasy, Vicodin and Oxycontin.

Michigan News reported that the use of prescription narcotic drugs, such as Vicodin and Oxycontin, and ecstasy had decreased. Cocaine and LSD use was on the rise among full-time college students. The use was above 5 percent for cocaine and above 4 percent for LSD at the time of the publication of the study results.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) released data reporting that in 2018 controlled prescription drugs were the second most abused medications and had caused the largest number of overdose deaths since 2001 among illicit drugs.

Experts provided some reasons to the DEA why teens might use prescription drugs to get high including:

  • Partying
  • Self-medication
  • Escape and boredom
  • Preservation of relationships/peer pressure
  • Competing for college admission and achievement
  • Balance between obligations and demands – both academic and extracurricular
  • Stress
  • Desire for “ideal” physical appearance

What’s the Problem?

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism said that “harmful and underage college drinking are significant public health problems” that take a toll on students academically and socially. The NIH reported that about one in four college students experiences academic consequences from drinking, including missing a class or classes, falling behind in a class or classes, doing poorly on exams or papers, and receiving lower grades.

Female stressed from using drugs
Nonmedical uses of prescription drugs are becoming an increasing use problem among college students

Other consequences of college drinking reported by the NIH include suicide attempts, health problems, injuries, unsafe sex and driving under the influence, as well as other behaviors that can result in police involvement.

When it comes to college drug use, the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence said that national survey data shows that students attending college are at a significantly higher risk of using marijuana for the first time than students not enrolled in college.

A study published by the NIH also showed that nonmedical use of prescription drugs is becoming an increasing illicit drug-use problem among college students nationally. The publication concluded that “college students are exposed to a great deal of misinformation about nonmedical prescription stimulant use due to the popularity of enticing myths.”

The authors found that either students were being told that such medications were “performance enhancers” or “smart drugs” or they were being told that effects of nonmedical use of such drugs are benign. But the study found that nonmedical prescription drug users typically have lower grade-point averages (GPAs) than non-users, and nonmedical stimulant users are more likely to be heavy drinkers and users of other illicit drugs as well.

Even though nonprescription drug use and the sharing of prescription drugs are illegal, a study found that of 81 percent of college students with ADHD, 62 percent gave their medication to someone without a prescription.


Drinking is often involved with hazing incidents as well. Hazing is defined by Babson College in Wellesley, Mass. as “any activity expected of someone joining or participating in a group that humiliates, degrades, abuses or endangers them regardless of a person’s willingness to participate.”

The college noted that 82 percent of deaths from hazing involve alcohol. Most incidents, especially those involving deaths, also end in some form of academic expulsion, suspension or banishment from clubs and extracurriculars, and/or criminal penalties, including jail time.

Binge Drinking

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism attributes many college alcohol problems to binge drinking. The institute defines binge drinking as “a pattern of drinking that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels to 0.08 g/dL.”

Did You Know

Not only can binge drinking affect a person’s health it can lead to car accidents, DUI arrests, and sexual assaults.

This equates to about four drinks for most women and five drinks for most men within a two-hour time frame.

Not only can binge drinking affect a person’s health but it can result in car accidents, drunk-driving arrests (DUIs), sexual assaults and injuries. Over time, drinking in excess can cause damage to the liver and other organs.

The institute found that about 1,825 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 die from unintentional injuries resulting from alcohol use, including car crashes. About 696,000 individuals within the same age-range are assaulted by another student who has been drinking, with about 97,000 students reporting sexual assault or date rape that involved alcohol.

It was reported that about 20 percent of college students meet the criteria for an alcohol use disorder (AUD). AUD is a medical diagnosis characterized as “problem drinking that becomes severe,” according to the NIH.

Drug Misuse/Addiction

Taking a drug without a prescription can result in unintended side effects. Certain drugs can interact with certain medical conditions causing potentially harmful effects, according to the DEA. Even over-the-counter (OTC) drug labels contain specific information about appropriate uses of the drugs and warnings associated with improper or unsafe uses of the medications. Mixing two or more drugs, whether prescription or OTC drugs, can result in unexpected side effects as well, including slowed reactions when operating a motor vehicle.

Negative effects can intensify when mixed with alcohol as well.

Substance Abuse Stats

According to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, almost one in four college students meet the medical criteria for substance abuse or dependence.


The DEA reported that the number of deaths caused by overdoses of prescription painkillers more than tripled in the past decade. More than 45 people die every day from overdoses of drugs such as Vicodin (hydrocodone), Oxycontin ( oxycodone) and methadone.

Also, a CDC press release in 2017 said that drug poisoning deaths doubled from 1999 to 2007, decreased by 26 percent from 2007 to 2014, and then increased in 2015 among teens aged 15 to 19.

Deaths Due to Drugs

The DEA concluded that in the United States, deaths due to drugs now outnumber deaths due to gunfire.

JUULing and Vaping

The CDC has warned that vaping is unsafe for kids, teens and young adults. But many young people aren’t aware of the risks because many think vaping isn’t as harmful as smoking. While experts agree cigarette smoking is more harmful than e-cigarettes, vaping still has many harmful side effects.

E-cigarettes have been the most commonly used tobacco product among young people since 2014, according to the CDC. In 2020, one out of 20 middle school students said they vaped in the past 30 days, and one out of five high school students said they vaped in the past 30 days.

Young adults who vaped nicotine increased from six percent to 22 among college students and from eight to 18 percent in those not in college between 2017 and 2019, according from a study from the University of Michigan.

Researchers are still studying the long-term side effects of vaping, but current studies show vaping harms the lungs. E-juice or vape juice can cause poisoning when inhaled, swallowed or through contact with the skin.

Some recent studies show that vaping may increase the risk of getting sick from COVID-19. One study from Stanford University showed that teens who used e-cigarettes were five times more likely to be diagnosed with COVID-19. Those who vaped and smoked traditional cigarettes were 6.8 times more likely to be diagnosed.

Vaping is especially dangerous for young people because the brain still develops until about age 25, and nicotine can harm brain development, according to the CDC.

Students & Vaping

America is facing an epidemic of e-cigarette use among teens and young adults. Learn more about the side effects of vaping.

View Side Effects

What Can Be Done?

The NIH created some strategies to eliminate substance abuse, including dispelling myths regarding nonmedical prescription drug use, promoting awareness of legal risks of prescription drug diversion (sharing), developing campus actions plans, de-stigmatizing college students who choose not to divert prescription medications or engage in illicit drug use, and developing early intervention strategies to assess risk and prevent progression to serious substance abuse and dependence problems.

The institute also points out that higher-risk groups, such as first-year students, student-athletes and members of Greek organizations, should be individually targeted with intervention strategies. The NIH said that programs should be designed to “change students’ knowledge, attitudes and behaviors related to alcohol (and drug use) so that they drink less, take fewer risks and experience fewer consequences.”

Signs of alcohol poisoning that college students should be aware of include:

  • Mental confusion, stupor or coma
  • Person cannot be awakened
  • Vomiting
  • Slow or irregular breathing
  • Hypothermia (low body temperature) – bluish or pale skin

Drug addiction is a chronic disease characterized by compulsive or difficult-to-control drug use, despite potentially harmful consequences. While the initial decision to use the drug is often voluntary, repeated exposure leads to brain changes that interfere with a person’s self-control. These brain changes can be persistent, requiring ongoing treatment.

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