Inhalant use is both more common and more dangerous than we think

Inhalant use is both more common and more dangerous than we think writes Gregory K. Fritz, M.D., editor of The Brown University Child and Adolescent Behavior Letter. Inhalants include a large group of substances that produce chemical vapors that lead to mental changes when inhaled. Most common are aerosol sprays including deodorants, hair spray, paints, cooking oils, etc. Volatile solvents such as glues, paint thinners, nail polish remover, gasoline and felt-tip markers are also used as inhalants. Inhalants are typically common household products with ready availability. Few are illegal for children to purchase. Because of their easy accessibility, inhalants are often the first drugs that children experiment with.

An annual national study regularly finds the highest rates of use occur among 8th graders. Fritz reports that repeated, frequent use of inhalants prolongs intoxication and adds to the danger of systemic side effects. In fact, few substances of abuse have as many or as serious medical consequences associated with their use as inhalants. A single prolonged session of use can lead to cardiac arrhythmia and death in a healthy young person. Permanent neurotoxic effects to the myelin sheath around nerve fibers in the brain and peripheral nervous system lead to a variety of syndromes. Liver, lung and kidney damage can be caused by chronic use. Nervous system and organ damage is only partially reversible when inhalant use is stopped.

Children and adolescents are generally not concerned about these consequences, but youthful experimentation with what seems to be a common, harmless product can have lasting, serious consequences. Therefore, Fritz warns parents and educators that it is important to identify and intervene early in cases of inhalant abuse. Parents and professionals should look for the following signs: chemical odors on a child’s breath or clothing; paint or solvent stains on face, hands or clothing; hidden spray cans or chemical-soaked rags; confused appearance; slurred speech; or impaired cognition. Children and young adolescents are relatively easily treated for inhalant abuse once the problem is recognized.

“Inhalant Abuse Among Children and Adolescents: More Common and More Dangerous Than We Think,” The Brown University Child and Adolescent Behavior Letter, Volume 19, Number 12, December 2003, p. 8.

Published in ERN February 2004 Volume 17 Number 2

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