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Drugs can change the way your body functions, how you feel and how you act. Find out more about drugs, dealing with peer pressure and how to get help with drugs.

What are drugs?  

A drug is a chemical that you take. Drugs can change the way your body functions, how you feel and how you act. There are lots of different types of drugs, and they all have the potential to be harmful if used incorrectly.  

Drugs can generally be divided into three categories:  

  • Prescription or ‘over-the-counter’ drugs: these are medications used to help manage or treat a health issue. They can be bought in shops or pharmacies, or prescribed by a healthcare professional.  
  • Legal recreational drugs: these are drugs taken with the intention of altering mood or behaviour. They are legal to buy and possess if you are over 18, but not necessarily safe. 
  • Illegal recreational drugs: these are drugs taken with the intention of altering mood or behaviour. They are illegal for anyone to sell, buy and possess, and are often harmful. 

The word ‘recreational’ describes something you do for enjoyment in your spare time. In the context of drugs, it means drugs which are taken when you don’t need to take them for your health.

Prescription and over-the-counter drugs 

You can only get prescription drugs from a pharmacist or hospital with a prescription from your GP. You might be prescribed a drug if you are ill or have a health problem. When this happens, it is important you follow the instructions your GP gives you, and only take prescription drugs that have been prescribed to you and not someone else. This is because prescription drugs can be unsafe in the wrong dose or if taken without your doctor knowing.  

You can buy over-the-counter drugs in shops, supermarkets or pharmacies, such as pills to help with aches, pain, cold and flu. If you take more than the recommended amount written on the pack, or mix them with other drugs, this could be unsafe. 

Side effects

All medications can cause side effects, which are unwanted symptoms caused by medical treatment. For some drugs, the side effects can be relatively minor, whereas for others they can be more serious. Your likelihood of having side effects from your medications may be related to your age, weight, sex, and overall health.  

To find out about possible side effects, you can ask your doctor or pharmacist, read the information contained within the packaging or search for the drug in the NHS medicine database. If your medication is causing severe side effects, it is important you discuss this with a healthcare professional – there might be an alternative option that would suit you better. 

Legal recreational drugs 

There are some drugs which are legal to buy if you are over 18, mainly alcohol and nicotine found in vapes and cigarettes. These are used for recreational purposes – to alter mood or behaviour. They can be bad for your health in various ways.  

New psychoactive substances

There are also drugs called new psychoactive substances that are meant to have similar effects as some illegal drugs like cocaine, cannabis and ecstasy. They are often easily available and sold as different names. 

These used to called ‘legal highs’ but as of 2016 these are illegal. While it isn’t illegal to be in possession of these drugs, it is illegal to sell them or give them to friends. They are made of chemicals that are often unsafe and can be just as dangerous as other illegal drugs.  

Find out more about new psychoactive substances.

Illegal recreational drugs 

Illegal drugs are described in different classes (A, B and C) depending on how unsafe they are. They are especially dangerous because you can never be certain of the strength, the contents of the drug and how it’s ‘cut’, whereas the ingredients of legal drugs can be regulated.  

Class A drugs

Class A drugs are the most harmful and dangerous. These include:  

  • Heroin, often known as ‘smack’ or ‘gear’ 
  • Cocaine, often known as ‘coke’, ‘crack’ or ‘charlie’ 
  • Ecstasy, often known as ‘E’, ‘MDMA’, ‘MD’, ‘molly’ or ‘mandy’ 
  • Crystal meth, often known as ‘meth’ or ‘ice’ 
  • Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), often known as ‘acid’, ‘tab’ or ‘dots’ 
  • Magic mushrooms, often known as ‘shrooms’ 
Class B drugs

Class B drugs are harmful and addictive. These include: 

  • Cannabis, often known as ‘marijuana’, ‘weed’, ‘hash’, ‘skunk’, ‘pot’, ‘herb’ or ‘dope’ 
  • Ketamine, often known as ‘ket’, ‘K’ or ‘Special K’ 
  • Amphetamines, often known as ‘speed’ or ‘whizz’ 
Class C drugs

Class C can be harmful and unsafe. These include: 

  • Benzodiazepines, often know as ‘tranquilisers’, ‘benzos’, ‘diazepam’, ‘downers’, ‘roofies’, ‘valium’, or ‘xanax’  
  • Anabolic steroids, often known as ‘roids’ or ‘juice’ 

The punishment for taking, carrying, sharing or selling (‘dealing’) illegal drugs depends on the type of drug. If the police catch you with any type of illegal drug you could be arrested and sent to prison. You might also not be allowed to travel to certain countries like the USA or Australia.  

Why do people take drugs? 

People take drugs for various reasons, such as: 

  • to socialise and relax 
  • to experiment 
  • to escape feelings of depression, anxiety, stress and/or insecurity 
  • to change their appearance 
  • to fit in to a certain group dynamic  
  • if they’re under pressure from friends 

Peer Pressure

People will have different opinions on taking illegal drugs. It is fine to have these opinions, but those drugs are still illegal and no one should ever feel under pressure to do something that we don’t want to do.  

Some people might feel tempted to take drugs because their friends tell them to, or to carry drugs that their friends ask them to. It is difficult to think a friend might not have your best interests at heart, but real friends should respect your decision to say ‘no’ and not pressure you to do something.  

If you are feeling pressured to take drugs, you could try: 

  • Thinking about what feels right for you.
  • Remembering that the majority of young people don’t take drugs even if it doesn’t always feel like the case.
  • Understanding and communicating your reasons behind saying ‘no’. This will help you feel more confident and assured when you say ‘no’. More about being assertive  
  • Focusing on your own opinion of yourself rather than other people’s opinions.
  • Finding out more about peer pressure and how you can stop it.
  • Being aware that many others around you will also be feeling the impact of peer pressure and you are not alone in this experience.
  • Talking to someone you trust or asking a trusted adult for help, such as a teacher, family member or healthcare professional.  If you are under 19, you can also speak to a counsellor at Childline via their website or by calling 0800 1111. 

If the pressure is becoming too much, think carefully about whether these are people you want to be spending time with. If they won’t respect your decision, it suggests they aren’t prioritising your happiness and safety. 

Is your friend being pressured?

If you have a friend who is on the receiving end of peer pressure, it is a good idea to talk one-on-one and discuss your feelings about drugs. You may both benefit from some support and may find it easier to stand your ground together. 

If you have any questions at all or want to talk anything through in confidence, you can call the Talk to Frank helpline 24 hours a day on 0300 123 6600. 


It is very important to know the risks that come with drug use, and also that drugs affect people differently, particularly illegal drugs, which may be cut with something you aren’t aware of. This makes it very hard to predict how they will affect you, even if you have done them before, and know how to manage those effects when they happen. 


One of the most dangerous side effects of many drugs is their addictive quality.  

Addiction is when someone does not have control over taking something, even though it is harming them or they want to stop. Addiction can be chemical or behavioural, and is often a mixture of both.  

Drugs are often addictive because they produce an intense high, which disappears quickly and leaves a powerful need to have more. This includes legal drugs, such as alcohol and nicotine in cigarettes and vapes.  

Anyone may choose to take drugs and anyone can be a drug user or an addict. Addiction isn’t always obvious, and doesn’t necessarily relate to the amount of drugs someone is taking or the interest in taking drugs so much as the feeling of needing to take them, in whatever context or amount.  

More about addiction

Impaired judgement 

Drugs impact on decision making. They often cause people to feel less inhibited, which results in them engaging in more risky behaviours than if they were sober. This includes risky sexual behaviour. 

Drugs and consent

The Sexual Offenses Act is very clear about the impact of alcohol and drugs on someone’s ability to consent: “If they are drunk or high, then they may not have the capacity to consent to sex and this includes any kind of sexual activity, like kissing or fondling”.  

Someone should be fully coordinated and responsive before you engage in any kind of sexual activity with them. If you are unsure if they are drunk or high, be cautious and wait until they have sobered up to check for consent. 

If someone forces you to do something you do not want to do of a sexual nature, it is never your fault and it is not OK. You should speak to someone you trust so that you can get help and support. 

Mood, body and health 

Drugs can have a big impact on how you feel physically and emotionally. There are physical health risks of taking drugs.  

Short term risks can include:  

Short term risks can include:  

  • Breathing problems 
  • Going into a coma 
  • Heart problems 
  • Feeling tired/ run down 
  • Getting more spots  
  • Getting more colds 
  • Feeling low/depressed in the days after taking drugs (this is known as ‘coming down’) 
  • Confusion 
  • Irritability 
  • Aggression 
  • Mood swings 
  • Paranoia 

Long-term health issues can include:  

  • Asthma 
  • Infertility 
  • Liver/ kidney/nerve damage 
  • Heart problems 
  • Anxiety and/or panic attacks 
  • Depression  
  • Schizophrenia 
  • Trouble maintaining erections and/or reduced sex drive 
  • Reduced memory and concentration 

Overdosing and/or having a bad trip 

An overdose is when someone takes more than their body can cope with. It can be very hard to judge how much you can take of any drug without overdosing, and even if you’ve used a drug before you have no way of judging its strength or knowing what other substances it has been mixed or ‘cut’ with. 

A ‘bad trip’ is when someone has a bad experience from what they have taken. 

Remember that emergencies are very rare, but sometimes people can have a bad reaction to drugs. They could have a bad experience and get anxious and panic. Or become overheated and dehydrated. 

For immediate help call 999 for an ambulance. For more info about what to do in an emergency visit  Talk to Frank 


Most drugs will affect your appearance to some degree and it could mean more than just a few spots.  

  • Steroids can affect your sex characteristics such as increasing your body hair and shrinking your genitals.  
  • Volatile substances such as gasses, glues and aerosols can give you a red rash around your mouth.  
  • Over time, cocaine and amphetamines can destroy the inside of your nose. 
  • Methamphetamine can cause your teeth and gums to rot away, and can cause skin ulcers. 


There are wider consequences of drug use on relationships with family, friends and partners. Drugs can change the way someone thinks, feels and behaves, and therefore alter the way they interact with others. This can cause friction and arguments, as well as trauma if the changes escalate to abusive behaviours. More about abuse


There are wider risks of drugs on someone’s future. Getting a criminal record could affect future job prospects and make it more difficult to travel abroad. Drugs can also cause financial problems, as frequent use of drugs and addiction can lead people into debt.  

Staying Safe 

Substances are not safe and can cause long-term harm. The safest option is not to use drugs.  

Anyone who does take drugs should: 

  • Make sure someone they are with knows what they have taken. 
  • Avoid mixing drugs and pace themselves; it can take a while for substances to take effect, and taking too much of a substance or mixing them with others can cause an overdose. 
  • Take regular breaks to cool down and drink water.  
  • Stay with people they trust, especially if they start to feel ill. 

Drink spiking

Spiking is when someone puts alcohol or drugs in a person’s drink without their knowledge. It is a serious crime, and can be very harmful for a variety of reasons including making a person vulnerable to theft, sexual assault and severe inebriation.  

It can be a scary experience and it’s important to be able to recognise the signs your drink has been spiked or how to help someone you suspect has been a victim. More about drink spiking  

DRugs testing at festivals

Often drugs can contain ingredients that they shouldn’t – sometimes things like rat poison or cement that can be really dangerous for your health. To help counter this, at some UK festivals you will find organisations that test drugs that people have brought to the festival for any ingredients that they shouldn’t contain.

How to tell if you have a drug problem 

Different types of drugs affect people differently. If you have a drug problem, you might: 

  • Worry about when you’ll have drugs next.
  • Depend on drugs to relax or to feel calm.
  • Use drugs to cope with some situations, for example, exam stress or family problems.
  • Find it hard to remember how much you’ve taken in one day.
  • Notice changes in your relationships with friends and family.
  • Notice big changes in your mood.
  • Think about drugs a lot, for example, at school or while you’re out with friends.
  • Plan your social life around drugs by making sure you can take drugs where you’ll be, for example, at a party or in the park. 

Getting help 

While some drugs are illegal, you should never be afraid to seek medical help, either while you are taking drugs or in general. In the UK, healthcare professionals have a duty of care and their priority is to make sure we are okay.  

Staff at Brook services can help you access help with drugs, alcohol and smoking if you ask them to. All of our staff are friendly and non-judgemental, and will do their best to help you find the support that’s right for you. 

There is a lot of support available if you, or someone you know, needs advice and support on unhealthy behaviours around illegal substance use, addiction and quitting. With the right help and support, it’s possible for someone to get drug free and stay that way. If you need treatment for drug addiction, you’re entitled to NHS care in the same way as anyone else who has a health problem. 

  1. A GP is a good place to start. They can discuss your problems with you and get you into treatment. They may offer you treatment at the practice or refer you to your local drug service. 
  2. If you’re not comfortable talking to a GP, you can approach your local drug treatment service yourself. You can find local drug treatment services on the Talk to Frank website. 
  3. As well as the NHS, there are charities and private drug and alcohol treatment organisations that can help you. Private drug treatment can be very expensive, but sometimes people get referrals through their local NHS. 

If you’re having trouble finding the right sort of help, you can: 

If you are worried about someone

It can be difficult to know what to do if you are worried about someone’s drug use. Aside from speaking to a trusted adult, you could start by letting the person know that you’re worried about them. They may not realise they have a drug problem, and they might not know how their behaviour is affecting you. If they don’t want to talk to you about it, you could suggest they talk to someone else. 

Read Childline’s advice about helping a friend

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