The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration recently released a survey which stated that 12 year-olds are abusing inhalants more than marijuana, hallucinogens and cocaine combined. In fact, according to the SAMHSA survey, huffing–deeply inhaling household products to get temporally intoxicated–is even more widespread than cigarette smoking among the age group.
Sharon Levy, MD, medical director of the Adolescent Substance Abuse Program (ASAP) at Children’s Hospital Boston, says peer pressure and the easy access young people have to huffable chemicals might account for its popularity.
“So many chemicals can be huffed and many of those are pretty easy for kids to get,” she says. Levy also notes that the legal status of the products being misused makes huffing far easier to hide from parents than other substances. “I once heard an ER doctor say that for a lot of kids, it’s easier to explain an empty can of whipped cream in their bedroom [the nitrous oxide found in cans of whipped cream is easily huffed], than it is to explain away an empty cocaine bag,” she says.
But despite their over-the-counter availability, Levy says the damage one can do to his or her central nervous system by huffing can be as dangerous, if not more so, than street drugs. “Unlike other forms of intake, huffing has an immediate and direct impact on your central nervous system,” she says. “When you swallow a pill it has to go through your stomach, liver, and so on, but when you huff it’s a direct line to your central nervous system. They’re getting a poison and delivering it straight to their brains.”
Like with all drugs, Levy says setting clear boundaries and vocalizing your expectations for your children is paramount in keeping them away from inhalants. She suggests parents discuss huffing incidents in the news with their children to impart the dangers of huffing. “By reaching out in that way parents are telling their kids their expectations for them, and also putting it out there that as parents they are willing to talk about these types of things.”
The following is a list of products commonly misused by kids as inhalants that Levy compiled for the American Academy of Pediatrics.
- Solvents and aerosols are usually types of liquid household or industrial products, including glues and adhesives, correction fluid, paints, felt-tip markers, polishes, computer or oven cleaners, and disinfectants. This means nearly all pressurized spray cans, including hair spray, condensed air for computer cleaning, deodorants and body spray, and spray paint, can be abused. Fuels, including butane, propane, gasoline, octane boosters and refrigerants are also abused.
- Nitrous oxide, or ‘laughing gas’ is usually diverted from medical use but is also commonly found in whip cream cans, chargers or dispensers.
- Nitrites, believed to enhance sexual function are found in air fresheners and more often used by older teens.
Because the ‘high’ caused by huffing is generally short, parents may have a hard time recognizing the symptoms of inhalant abuse. Levy says parents need to be vigilant in looking for the warning signs if they suspect their child is misusing inhalants. Click here and scroll to the bottom of the page for a list of warning signs parents should be aware of.
“As a parent, if you see any product in a kid’s room where you think it doesn’t belong, you may want to be suspicious,” Levy says. “Even when the product in question is appropriate, quantity is another sign. A can or two of spray deodorant isn’t a big deal, but once you find five cans it should raise a red flag.”