Inhalant Abuse: The Invisible Threat

Many parents are knowledgeable and concerned about tobacco and alcohol, as well as illicit drugs such as marijuana, and cocaine. Often, they are not as familiar with the dangers posed to their children from common household products containing volatile aerosols or solvents. These include glues, nail polish remover, spray paint, paint thinner, hair spray, marking pens, butane lighter fluid, gasoline, typewriter correction fluid, canned whipped cream, cleaning fluids, and air conditioning coolants. Many young people look to these sources for quick intoxication, without knowing about the serious health consequences that can result, inhaling the products to induce a psychoactive effect.

Surveys indicate that more than 12.5 million Americans have abused inhalants at least once in their lives. The National Institute on Drug Abuse’s “Monitoring the Future” study revealed that about 20% of eighth graders have abused inhalants, one of the few substances abused more by younger children than by older ones.

Many youth report they start sniffing because they don’t believe these substances can hurt them, and because of peer pressure or low self-esteem. Once hooked, they find it a tough and difficult habit to break. Inhaled chemicals are quickly absorbed through the lungs into the bloodstream and distributed to the brain and other organs. Within minutes, users experience intoxication along with alcohol-like effects that include slurred speech, lack of physical coordination, dizziness, and euphoria. Intoxication lasts only a few minutes, so abusers frequently want to prolong the high by continuing to inhale over a period of several hours.

What many youth don’t know is that even a single session of repeated inhalant abuse can cause death. Prolonged sniffing can induce irregular and rapid heart rhythms and lead to heart failure and death within minutes. This syndrome, known as sudden sniffing death, can result from a single session use by a generally healthy person. Inhalant abuse can induce death due to asphyxiation, suffocation, choking, or fatal injuries occurring as a result of intoxification.

Early identification and intervention are important in order to stop abuse before serious health consequences result. Parents, teachers, physicians, and others can help if they are aware of these possible signs of a serious inhalant abuse problem:

  • chemical odors on breath or clothing
  • paint or other stains on face, hands, or clothes
  • hidden rags, clothes, empty containers of potentially abused products
  • sitting with a marker near nose
  • constantly smelling clothing sleeves
  • drunk or disoriented appearance
  • slurred speech
  • nausea or loss of appetite
  • inattentiveness, lack of coordination, irritability, and depression

There are many national, statewide and local efforts aimed at preventing inhalant abuse. Partnership for a Drug-Free America and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) have brought more public attention to inhalant issues through their television, radio, and print ads. ONDCP spent $25 million on a recent campaign and also partnered with the American Academy of Pediatrics to conduct a roundtable meeting in New York aimed at educating the media about inhalant issues. The Center for Substance Abuse Treatment held a summit to develop a comprehensive national approach to inhalant abuse prevention, intervention, treatment and research.

Locally, the Texas Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition organizes an inhalants conference annually. Over 150 professionals attended a recent program, “The Invisible Threat.” Isabel Burk, Director of the New York-based Health Network addressed the prevention of inhalant abuse, including personal safety, environmental safety and poison control. Techniques Burk has found effective include talking to children about reading labels, following directions, using safety precautions, and understanding appropriate vocabulary. Several local parents whose children were victims of sudden sniffing death spoke to the participants. Most everyone agreed that Mr. John Authers, whose 10-year-old daughter Casey died last year after huffing, said it best: “Remember, almost every bathroom has a can of air freshener and a lock on the door. Our children are very precious. We need to know or at least be aware of some, if not all, of the dangers they face every day.”