Inhalant Abuse: As Close as the Kitchen Sink

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March 16, 2000 (Atlanta) -- Many parents may not know it, but in their child's world, "huffing" may be more popular than "puffing." According to the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition, surveys find that among children up to the eighth grade, the act of inhaling concentrated fumes -- often from common household items -- is more prevalent than smoking marijuana. And, according to the group, after eighth grade, inhalants are the fourth most abused substance, following alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana.

The group is holding a press conference today to discuss the dangers of huffing, also known as "bagging" and "sniffing."

The coalition, with support from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's (SAMHSA) Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, is trying to shed light on what's been called a "silent epidemic" by sponsoring the seventh annual National Inhalants & Poisons Awareness Week next week.

A national survey by SAMHSA found 431,000 kids aged 12-17 experimented with inhalants for the first time in 1997. In a recent statement, Nelba Chavez, PhD, administrator of SAMHSA, explained, "Children and adolescents think they're supermen and superwomen; they're immortal, invulnerable. But if they use inhalants, they may never have a second chance to learn otherwise."

A nationwide survey released by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) last year echoed SAMHSA's findings. Of 600 children aged 10-17 in the AAP survey, nearly 20% of the eighth graders in that group said they have tried to use inhalants to get high. Almost two-thirds said they know what huffing is, and just over one-quarter have seen or heard about peers who huff. In fact, the amount of abuse among young people could be on par with drugs and alcohol, Ed Jacobs, MD, chairman of the committee on substance abuse for the AAP, told WebMD at the time.

The survey underscores the fact that using inhalants is not an exceedingly rare event, and it is actually more common than many parents think, according to Jacobs. He said, "This is a phenomenon that kids 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 years old are clearly aware of, and I think that's significant."

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The ease of access to inhalants makes the problem difficult to detect, and helps create a perception that the problem is not as common among young people as alcohol, drugs, or tobacco, according to Jacobs. More than 1,000 common items, from cooking spray to paint to glue to gasoline, can give off the necessary fumes. The medical drug nitrous oxide is also a popular inhalant.

The effect for the user can be a temporary euphoria. But the damage can be deadly, even for first-time users. The toxic chemicals can also cause bad headaches, hallucinations, nausea, and muscle spasms. Short-term memory loss and permanent brain damage also may occur.

The dangers of inhalant abuse are taught in about three-quarters of classrooms nationwide, according to the AAP report. Of the 600 children questioned, just over half say they've discussed huffing with their families.

But the younger children, aged 10-11, are the least likely to be educated about inhalant abuse at school. And over half of the younger children surveyed had not discussed the problem with their families.

Harvey Weiss, executive director of the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition, told WebMD in an interview last fall that the facts "validate ... that there's a problem [everywhere]."

For parents and teachers, the AAP says the warning signs and symptoms of inhalant abuse may be breath and clothing that smells like chemicals, paint or stains on the body or clothing, spots or sores around the mouth, a dazed or glassy-eyed look, or a sudden change in appetite or mood.

Vital Information:

  • Parents may not realize it, but up until the time they reach eighth grade, more children abuse household items like glue and gasoline than marijuana.
  • After children reach the eighth grade, inhalants are the fourth most commonly abused substance, after alcohol, tobacco and marijuana.
  • Doctors say inhalant abuse can be fatal. It also can cause brain damage, memory loss, nausea, headaches, and muscle spasms. Warning signs of abuse are breath and clothing smelling like chemicals, paint or stains on the body or clothing, spots or sores around the mouth, a dazed or glassy-eyed look, or a sudden change in appetite or mood.
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