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Learn / A Parent’s Guide to Drug Smells and Odors

A Parent’s Guide to Drug Smells and Odors

By 
Hannah Friedman
|
 August 10th, 2023|   Clinically Reviewed by 
Rajnandini Rathod

If you think your child might be using drugs, certain smells can help you know for sure. Some substances have distinctive odors. You’re probably already familiar with a few, like alcohol or cigarette smoke. But some of the most dangerous drugs, like meth and PCP, can be harder to identify. This guide will teach you to recognize the smells of several different drugs and help you decide what to do next.

Common Drug Smells and Odors

Drugs can leave lingering odors in your child’s room, in their car, or on their clothes. You might also associate a strong smell with certain behaviors. Does your teen smell different every time they come home from band practice? Or, do they seem more irritable whenever they smell a certain way? 

Once you recognize the smell of drugs, you can get your teen the help they need. But first, it’s important to know what you’re dealing with. And wrong assumptions can make matters worse. Even the best treatment for alcohol abuse might not help your teen recover from meth addiction.

Marijuana

There are many strains of marijuana, and each one smells a little different. But most weed smells “skunky,”1 with distinctive sour, earthy notes. Some describe it as smelling like burnt rope.2 It can also smell light or even citrusy, depending on the varietal. 

Synthetic Cannabinoids

A growing number of U.S. states are legalizing marijuana. As that trend continues, scientists develop more and more synthetic versions of the drug. K2, or spice, is one of these. While K2 isn’t meant for human consumption,3 some people ingest it anyway. Some say that spice smells a lot like marijuana. 

However, other synthetic cannabinoids may smell different.4 One study found that several of these drugs smelled like naphthalene, an ingredient in mothballs. As more synthetic cannabinoids come on the market, it’s hard to predict exactly how each of them will smell. 

If your child is abusing any of these cannabis products, it may be time to research marijuana rehab centers.

PCP

Phencyclidine, more commonly called PCP or angel dust, is a dangerous dissociative.5 This drug is infamous for its more severe side effects, which include paranoia and physical violence. It can even be fatal. 

PCP normally appears as a powder, pill, or liquid. These inert forms of the drug are odorless.6 However, you can smoke PCP by adding the powder to any plant, including marijuana, tobacco, or even herbs like mint. 

The smoke from PCP smells like ammonia. If you find this strong chemical smell on your child’s clothes or belongings, they may be using the drug. But if you notice a characteristic PCP smell coming from an entire home or building, you may be close to a lab that manufactures it on a larger scale. 

Crack Cocaine

Crack cocaine, or crack, is a more potent form of cocaine.7 Both of these drugs are stimulants, and they have an immediate effect on circulation. Your heart beats faster, but your blood vessels get smaller. In extreme cases, this can cause seizures or heart attacks. 

Cocaine is a white powder, and usually odorless. Crack cocaine, however, appears in the form of a rock or crystal, and it has a distinctive smell when smoked. Many people report that crack smells like burnt plastic.8 

Meth

Methamphetamine, or meth, is an extremely powerful stimulant.9 This drug is most common in rural towns, and it can wreak havoc on entire communities. Most of the time, people manufacture it in illegal at-home labs. Because meth includes such volatile chemicals, these labs can easily catch fire or even explode.

Like other synthetic drugs, including crack cocaine, meth emits a strong chemical smell.10 Some compare it to ammonia or burning plastic. If your child smokes meth regularly, or in large quantities, their sweat may start to smell the same way.

Experts say that meth is a “community disease.”11 Even more than other drugs, it affects entire social groups. As a result, your child may need a change of scenery to fully recover. If you’re noticing a meth smell in your home, you can look into meth rehab centers that treat teens.

Recognizing Drug Paraphernalia

Not everyone is an expert drug smell detector. And even if you are, your teen might be very good at hiding their substance use. They could also be using odorless drugs, like prescription pills. 

If you can’t smell drugs, but you’re still concerned about your child’s behavior, you can keep an eye out for common drug paraphernalia.12 Any of these items may smell like their associated drugs.

Marijuana and Cannabinoid Paraphernalia

  • Glass, metal, or wooden pipes
  • Bongs
  • DIY pipes, such as a pipe carved out of an apple or a Coke can with a puncture in the side
  • Prescription pill bottles with or without printed labels, which can be used to store marijuana
  • Herb grinders
  • Lighters
  • Cigarette rolling papers or blunt wraps
  • Vape pens
  • Bottles of vape juice
  • Blowtorches
  • Lighters
  • Shallow dishes or trays with drug residue

PCP Paraphernalia

  • Dark-colored cigarettes
  • Cigarette rolling papers
  • Bags of plant matter, such as marijuana or non-psychoactive herbs
  • Glass or metal pipes
  • Bongs
  • Lighters

Cocaine and Crack Cocaine Paraphernalia

  • Glass pipes
  • Lighters
  • Small spoons, keys, or other objects that can fit inside a nostril
  • Small plastic bags
  • Small glass or plastic bottles with screw tops
  • Rolled bills or straws that have been cut down
  • Credit cards, ID cards, or razor blades with white residue
  • Small mirrors or plates with white residue or scratch marks

Because cocaine normally doesn’t have a smell, it can be harder to detect than smokable drugs. If you’re worried your child is snorting the powdered version, you can learn how to tell if someone is using cocaine

Meth Paraphernalia

  • Glass pipes
  • Spoons
  • Tinfoil
  • Lighters

Injectable Drug Paraphernalia

Some people inject drugs like meth, crack cocaine, and PCP. However, heroin is the most common injectable drug.13 No matter which substance a person is injecting, they’ll probably use similar paraphernalia:

  • Syringes
  • Metal spoons or cookers14 (small metal containers used for heating drugs over a flame)
  • Lighters
  • Items that can be used as tourniquets,15 including elastic strips, belts, neckties, and similar

Injecting drugs16 is one of the most dangerous ways to take them. It substantially increases the risk of infectious diseases, including HIV and hepatitis. If you suspect your teen is injecting drugs, they may need immediate professional support. To get them the help they need, you can start by researching heroin rehab centers



Signs and Symptoms of Drug Use

Addiction causes behavioral changes17—but so does adolescence. It can be hard to tell the difference between normal teen development and more serious problems. According to experts, there are a few warning signs that your child might need help: 

  1. Their demeanor changes suddenly.
  2. Multiple signs of addiction appear at the same time. 
  3. Their behavior is extreme. 

But what specific signs should you look for? You can keep your child safe by watching out for these symptoms of substance abuse:18

  • Frequently changing friend groups
  • Regularly staying out after their curfew
  • Lying about where they’ve been
  • Making transparent excuses for bad behavior
  • Pulling back from family activities
  • Disrespecting authority figures such as parents, teachers, or other adults
  • Academic problems
  • Changes in appearance
  • Poor oral hygiene
  • Bloodshot eyes, dilated pupils, or pinpoint pupils
  • Unexplained weight gain or loss
  • Uncharacteristic or unprovoked anger
  • Poor judgment
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Mood swings
  • Drastic changes to sleep habits

Identifying Drug Smells in the Home

When you want to keep your child safe, asking “What do drugs smell like?” can be a good first step. But smells can be deceiving. If you think you’re smelling drugs, you should gather more information before confronting your child.

First, consider the context in which you’re noticing the smell: 

  • Is the smell coming from your child’s bedroom, the clothes they’re wearing, their body, or somewhere else? 
  • Do you only notice it at certain times of the day? 
  • Does your child act differently when they smell that way? 

Use your answers to make a plan of action. For example, if you notice the smell in their bedroom, you might want to take a look around while they’re out of the house. Or if the smell only happens late at night, you can check in on them around that time to make sure they’re okay. 

Looking for Drugs in Your Home

If you think your teen may be keeping substances in your home, you should be aware of a few common hiding spots for drugs:19

  • Electronics with closed compartments (calculators, game consoles, alarm clocks, etc.)
  • Highlighters or pens with caps
  • Candy wrappers or snack containers
  • Heating vents
  • Stuffed animals
  • Car interiors, especially any hidden compartments

Some retailers also sell disguised stash containers,20 which look like other objects. For example, your teen might have a smell-proof container that looks exactly like a can of soda. 

Addressing Drug Use With Your Child

Every behavior—even dangerous behavior—serves a purpose. If your child’s using drugs, there’s a reason for it. But they might not know what that reason is. Maybe they’re trying to self-medicate mental health issues, impress their friends, or just get your attention. Whatever need they’re trying to meet, you can help them address it in a more effective way. 

In many cases, the next step is to talk to your child about their behavior. You can also get the help of a therapist or addiction specialist, or even stage an intervention. Whatever you decide, take your time to prepare for this conversation. Go into it with a plan for what you’ll say, and clear goals for the future. 

The most important thing is opening communication with your child, and letting them know you’re on their side. Try to avoid blaming them or punishing them for their behavior. Instead, focus on giving them more support. This could mean that you set stronger boundaries, or take away privileges like staying out after a certain time. You can also look for more sustainable ways to meet their emotional needs. For example, you might suggest a weekly family hike or movie night. 

If your child is abusing drugs, they may need professional mental health treatment. It’s best to start researching treatment programs before it becomes an emergency. You can also reach out to rehab programs to ask for their expert advice. 

Prevention and Education

Whether or not your child is using drugs, there are things you can do to keep them safe. Experts have identified certain risk factors for drug use among teens:21

  • Conflict with parents
  • Inconsistent, harsh, or lacking discipline
  • Substance use by parents or siblings
  • Physical abuse
  • Lack of supervision
  • Academic problems

Addressing these issues can lower your child’s risk of substance abuse. You can also teach them about addiction, and what to do if they encounter drug use. For example, you can encourage them to call you for a ride home if any of their friends offer them drugs. 

Seeking Professional Assistance

Data suggests that instead of talking to their parents, teens confide in other adults22 more readily. In addition to offering them emotional support, you can connect them with a larger community of people. That could include trusted friends, extended family, and mental health providers. 

You can choose the right type of healthcare professional based on your family’s needs. These experts can help in a variety of ways: 

  • Offering a safe space in which teens can talk about their feelings
  • Diagnosing underlying mental health issues
  • Prescribing non-addictive medications 
  • Recommending specific types of long-term treatment
  • Facilitating communication between family members
  • Educating parents on how to best support teenagers

Addiction and mental health treatment are different for everyone. Your child might benefit from seeing a talk therapist, psychiatrist, social worker, or other specialist. In most rehab programs—including inpatient and outpatient centers—they’ll get coordinated care from a team of experts. 

While treatment will focus on your child, it often includes the whole family. You might attend group therapy sessions or just receive updates about their progress. Their care team will probably also suggest ways to improve your whole family’s dynamic. 

Supporting Your Child’s Well-Being

If you discover that your child is using drugs, it’s a sign that something has to change. Going forward, they’ll probably need new kinds of support. That could mean going to rehab, switching schools, or something else entirely. In any event, this might be the start of a turbulent time. 

As your child makes this transition, look for ways to provide stability: 

  • Communicate openly. Foster a supportive home environment by talking to your child about their feelings. You can also share your own experience in a gentle, loving way.
  • Set clear boundaries and expectations. Reward their progress and provide consistent discipline. 
  • Connect with the other people in their support network. This may include therapists, teachers, friends, or extended family. Work as a team to support your child’s ongoing recovery.
  • Set a positive example. Children with parents who abuse substances,23 including alcohol, have a higher risk of addiction. 
  • Look for ways to have fun. Finding joy is an essential part of recovery. Encourage your child to try new hobbies they might find meaningful. You can also plan regular activities as a family.

Remember that your child isn’t the only one going through a major life change. Their journey affects you and your whole family. Make sure you get the support you need, too. You might see a 1:1 therapist, lean on trusted friends, or just take time for yourself. 

Practicing self-care has several benefits. First, you’ll ensure that you have the emotional bandwidth to help your child face whatever challenges arise. You’ll also show your child that it’s okay to ask for help when they need it. 

Moving Forward Together

If you’re concerned that your child might be doing drugs, there are a few steps you can take to keep them safe: 

  • Learn how to detect drug smells in your home or on your child’s clothes.
  • Check for drug paraphernalia, making sure to look in common hiding places.
  • Talk to your child about drug use.
  • Get expert advice from mental health professionals. 

Parenting is a constant learning process. And the more you know about substance abuse, the more tools you’ll have to help your child. If they need professional support, you can always connect with a rehab program for teens.


Frequently Asked Questions About Drug Smells and Odors

What does meth smell like?

Methamphetamine, or meth, emits a strong chemical smell resembling ammonia or burning plastic. Recognizing this distinct odor can help identify potential methamphetamine use.

What does fentanyl smell like?

Fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid, lacks a distinctive smell. It’s generally odorless, making it hard to detect based on smell alone. However, recognizing other signs and symptoms of fentanyl use is crucial.

What drug smells like burnt plastic?

Crack cocaine is often associated with a smell similar to burnt plastic. This distinct odor is a characteristic of crack cocaine when smoked. Recognizing this smell can help identify possible crack cocaine use.


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