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Substance Abuse and Addiction Health Center

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Inhalant Abuse: Growing Problem Often Starts With Very Young


Other warning signs: Unusual chemical breath odors, watery eyes, dazed or dizzy appearance, paint on the face and fingers, red or runny nose, spots or sores around the mouth, loss of appetite, anxiety, excitability, and irritability

Death likely occurs when a child gets panicky while inhaling, Earl Siegel, PharmD, director of the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Drug and Poison Information Center, tells WebMD. "We think the people who die from inhalants are those who get very scared, who take off running, maybe have some kind of trauma." The excitement triggers the body to release adrenalin, which can cause the heart to beat irregularly, he explains. "They're then getting no oxygen to the brain. They die in minutes. Even if there is life support next door, they won't make it to the emergency room."

Kids who have asthma could be especially at risk, he says. "They panic because they are having trouble breathing," then their heart can begin beating irregularly. "That's a one-two punch," he adds.

According to the Texas Commission on Drugs and Alcohol, inhalant deaths can also occur from asphyxia -- solvent gases cause the person to stop breathing from lack of oxygen. Users can also choke to death from their own vomit or suffocate, more common in those who inhale from plastic bags. There's also a risk of suicide -- coming down from a high causes some to feel depressed.

Deaths from inhalant abuse are underreported, says Siegel, because "no one is closely looking for this problem. Also, there's a stigma associated with this kind of death. Because of that, families often cover it up."

"It's happening in the good schools, in all the schools," says Siegel. "There are some good statistics from the University of Michigan that close to 20% of 8th graders are abusing inhalants, putting their lives at risk. While teens from 12 to 14 years old are most likely to abuse inhalants, statistics also suggest that very young children, 7 and younger, are abusing the stuff.

Drug education programs that target 13- to 15-year-olds just aren't cutting it, Siegel tells WebMD. "That's too late. Parents need to be talking to kids at a very early age, 3 or 4."

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