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Inhalant Abuse: Growing Problem Often Starts With Very Young

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WebMD Health News

Aug. 4, 2000 -- You don't think of them as drugs. Air freshener, cooking spray, oven cleaner, felt-tipped pens, nail polish remover, and aerosol whipped cream ... things found in virtually any home. To drug abuse officials, they are known as "inhalants." And growing numbers of children -- some as young as 4 years old -- know they can get high from sniffing them.

And they get high quickly. Ten or 15 seconds of sniffing produces a high that lasts a few minutes. If they keep inhaling, there's dizziness. Some pass out. Some actually die. It's called sudden death syndrome, and it can happen the first time -- or the hundredth time -- a child takes a hit.

"I call it Russian roulette," says Harvey Weiss, director of the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition. "You can die at any time from some of this stuff. That just doesn't happen with other drugs, not in the age group we're talking about." In fact, sudden death syndrome is responsible for more than half of all deaths due to inhalant abuse, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

Every kid who takes a hit gets some permanent brain damage. "Every time someone uses an inhalant, large amounts of toxic chemicals enter the lungs and pass from the bloodstream into the brain," says a fact sheet from the AAP. "[Inhalants] damage and kill brain cells. The amount of fumes a young person inhales greatly exceeds what is considered safe even in a workplace setting."

Over the 10 years he's been monitoring this problem, says Weiss, he's heard some sad stories. "You really see some very significant deterioration among chronic users. You see memory loss, [brain] damage. Some will just fall over while you're talking with them. A lot just become vegetables ... The number of young people doing inhalants far exceeds all the other substances you see mentioned in the newspapers. More kids are doing inhalants than are doing ecstasy. But nobody talks about inhalants."

Among users, inhalant use is known as "huffing," "bagging," "sniffing," and "wanging." The problem cuts across all racial and social boundaries, Weiss tells WebMD. But among parents and doctors, there is little understanding of it, he says. Many don't even know the problem exists.

He hears from the upper- and middle-class white parents whose children have died. They say, "I talked to my child about alcohol, sex, marijuana, and cocaine, but I never thought my child would do anything like this," Weiss tells WebMD. "Or they take their child to see a pediatrician or family doctor, and the doctor tells them they don't think it's a problem. They just don't recognize inhalant abuse ... When they come to me, they're saying 'What do I do now?'"

In fact, "the whiter the population, the wealthier the population, the less understanding there is that this is a problem," says Weiss. "There's a vision of who does inhalants, and it's poor people, people of color, people with not much of education. There's denial that this goes on in upper- and middle-class families, when in fact it cuts across all socioeconomic levels."

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