Last reviewed on February 3, 2011
By Henry H. Bernstein, D.O.
Harvard Medical School
Do you know what inhalants are? If you don't, you should, because one out of every five students in America has used an inhalant to get high by the time he or she reaches the 8th grade. In fact, inhalant abuse, also called sniffing or huffing, is as popular with young people as marijuana. Many parents do not know about these dangerous but commonly available substances.
Inhalants are gases and vapors released into the air from common household products that are inhaled on purpose by some children. You may have heard about people sniffing glue or paint fumes; other products can be misused in the same way. Examples of these kinds of products include:
- Cooking spray
- Typewriter correction fluid
- Felt-tip markers
- Furniture polish and wax
- Air fresheners
- Spray deodorants
- Hair spray
- Nail-polish removers
- Butane (found in cigarette lighters)
- Glues, such as model-airplane glue and contact cement
- Paints and paint thinners
- Spray paints
- Air-conditioning refrigerant
Inhalants are popular because, as you can see from the list above, many can be found throughout our homes and are easy to get. In addition, many adults do not know much, if anything, about inhalants, nor would they think these things were being abused.
Although these products are used as "drugs," they are extremely dangerous poisons that can cause serious injury throughout the body, even death, when inhaled. Breathing gases and vapors from these products can cause permanent brain, nerve, kidney and liver damage. Use of inhalants, even one time, can end up in death from suffocation, choking, accidents or heart attacks (known as "sudden sniffing death syndrome").
Behavior problems, not doing well in school, withdrawal symptoms and abuse of other substances have also been linked with people who use/abuse inhalants chronically (many times over a long period of time).
How do you know if your child might be using inhalants? Some signs of possible inhalant abuse include:
- Finding empty product containers in your childs room or anywhere in the house
- Unusual, strong odors on your child's breath or clothing
- Paint or stains on his body or clothing
- Rash on the face or blisters/sores around the nose and/or mouth without a good explanation
- Red or watery eyes and large pupils
- Frequent runny nose, sniffling, coughing
- Loss of appetite, tiredness, nausea
The use of inhalants is most common among 14- to 15-year-olds, but may even be seen in children as young as 6 years to 8 years old. Although increased awareness has decreased some inhalant abuse, it still remains a BIG problem in children. In a 2003 survey, the number of 10th and 12th graders who had used inhalants in the previous year had gone down, but the number of 8th graders who used these dangerous substances had gone up.
The best way to prevent inhalant abuse is to talk with your children about the dangers of these types of products. Make it clear that inhalants are poisons. Let your children know that even one-time use of inhalants can be deadly. If possible, do not buy solvent-based products or products in spray cans that can be abused. Instead buy water-based versions or products in non-aerosol "pump" spray bottles. If solvent-based products must be used in the home, keep them locked away and out of the sight and reach of children.
Parents must teach their children at an early age about the dangers of inhalants, as well as alcohol, tobacco and other drugs.
For More Information:
National Inhalant Prevention Coalition
National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information
National Institute on Drug Abuse
Henry H. Bernstein, D.O. is a Senior Lecturer in Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. In addition, he is chief of General Academic Pediatrics at Children's Hospital at Dartmouth and Professor of Pediatrics at Dartmouth Medical School. He is the former associate chief of General Pediatrics and director of Primary Care at Children's Hospital Boston.