The specialty of adolescent medicine has developed in response to the unique health care needs of adolescents. Knowledge of the physical, cognitive, emotional and social changes that adolescents undergo, as well as disease processes that occur during adolescence is vital when caring for patients in this age group.

Although adolescence is normally thought of as a healthy period of life, significant health care problems often occur during this time:

  • Causes of adolescent morbidity and mortality are often a result of negative behavioral and social forces.
  • Accidental injuries, suicide and homicide now account for more than 75 percent of all adolescent deaths.
  • It is estimated that nearly one fourth of all adolescents between the ages of 10 and 17 are at very high risk for substance abuse, delinquency, exposure to sexually transmitted diseases or school failure. Substance abuse, including alcohol, drug and tobacco use, often begins during the teen years.
  • Many of the AIDS cases reported in the United States are individuals in their twenties. It is likely that these young people acquired their infection during their adolescent years.

Chronic illness also affects increasing numbers of adolescents, as physicians are able to deal more effectively with diseases in children. Most investigators estimate the prevalence of chronic disease in the adolescent population to be approximately 10 percent. These adolescents must deal with the burden of their illness while struggling to achieve the tasks of normal adolescent development.

Many problems of adulthood begin in adolescence. Lifestyle and behavioral decisions made during the adolescent years may profoundly and permanently affect adult health and well-being. Choices and behaviors can be influenced by education and counseling during adolescence.