Teen girls more apt than boys to abuse inhalants

Red eyes, a runny nose and chemical breath are among symptoms of inhaling dangerous but common household substances, says a new study.

By Susan J. Landers — Posted April 2, 2007

Print  |   Email  |   Respond  |   Reprints  |   Like Facebook  |   Share Twitter  |   Tweet Linkedin

With an estimated 1.1 million adolescents snatching a quick high by inhaling such lethal substances as Freon, butane and a host of other household products each year, physicians and parents should familiarize themselves with the signs and symptoms of this dangerous practice, according to a panel of experts.

Red or runny eyes or nose, spots or sores around the mouth, chemical breath or odor, nausea, anxiety and stains on the body or clothing are red flags, says the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition, a nonprofit group based in Tennessee. NIPC kicked off the 15th National Inhalants and Poisons Awareness Week on March 15 with a Washington, D.C., briefing.

The overall rate of inhalant abuse has remained stable at about 4.5% between 2002 and 2005, found a new report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration released at the briefing. But more girls than boys are abusing these products. Almost 5% of girls between the ages of 12 and 17 used inhalants in 2005, up from 4.1% in 2002. For boys, the figure remained constant throughout that period at 4.2%.

The number of first-time users remained relatively stable from 2002 to 2005, according to the report, "Patterns and Trends in Inhalant Use by Adolescent Males and Females: 2002-2005." About 591,000 young people initiated use of inhalants in 2002, compared with 605,000 in 2005.

The findings are based on the National Household Survey on Drug Use and Health conducted from 2002 to 2005. The data were obtained from 91,145 children ages 12 to 17.

The misuse of inhalants can cause kidney, lung, bone marrow and brain damage; heart attacks; convulsions; and death, said Bertha Madras, PhD, deputy director of demand reduction in the While House Office of National Drug Control Policy, who spoke at the briefing. Since the highs experienced last only a few minutes, the tendency is to inhale repeatedly, she said.

Between 100 and 120 teens die each year from inhalant abuse, said Harvey Weiss, founder and executive director of the inhalant prevention coalition. But the toll may be higher because the cause of death is not always recognized, he noted.

The inhalants are common household products, such as shoe polish, glue, aerosol air fresheners, hair sprays, nail polish, paint solvents, degreasers, gasoline or lighter fluids.

Since the items are so readily available and so familiar, young people may not recognize their danger, said Timothy P. Condon, PhD, deputy director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. "We know that inhalant abuse can start early, with research suggesting that even preadolescent children seek out inhalants because they are easy to obtain."

NIDA's ongoing Monitoring the Future study of teen drug use has, for example, found that eighth graders abuse inhalants at a higher rate than do 10th and 12th graders.

The abuse of inhalants by teens is not new, noted Stephen J. Pasierb, president and CEO of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. In 1995, an increase in such abuse was driven back by an emphasis on education, a move that all at the briefing said was necessary. "Every new generation of teens must learn about the dangers all over again," Pasierb said.

For a time, the Web site YouTube was showing homemade videos of teens high on inhalants until the site was persuaded to remove them, Pasierb said. To counter that, new televised public service announcements are mimicking the low-tech video presentations, but they close with a portrayal of the death of a participant.

Parents who lost children to the practice also spoke at the briefing. The 15-year-old son of Mona and Larry Casey of Naples, Fla., died after sniffing Freon from an air conditioner. The realization that the substance was so readily accessible inspired the family to petition their state Legislature to require air conditioner locks.

Brady Coates, 18, of Everett, Wash., died after inhaling butane. His father displays his son's picture and distributes green bracelets that say, "Stay tough and don't huff," taking a word from the inhalant abuse vocabulary.

Back to top


Facts about inhalant abuse

  • Inhalants are often the first drugs that young children use. Among them are volatile solvents such as paint thinners and glues, and aerosols such as hair sprays.
  • Inhalant abusers can sniff or snort fumes from containers or spray aerosols directly into the nose or mouth. A high lasts for only a few minutes, so abusers often inhale repeatedly over several hours.
  • Short-term effects include the rapid movement of chemicals from the lungs through the blood to the brain and other organs. In minutes, alcohol-like effects such as slurred speech, clumsy movements, dizziness and euphoria can occur. Hallucinations and delusions may linger.
  • Among the medical consequences is "sudden sniffing death." A single use can produce rapid and irregular heart rhythms, heart failure and death. Chronic exposure causes widespread and long-lasting damage to the nervous system and other organs.

Source: "Inhalant Abuse," National Institute on Drug Abuse Research Report, revised 2005

Back to top

External links

"Patterns and Trends in Inhalant Use by Adolescent Males and Females: 2002-2005," Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, March 15 (link)

National Inhalant Prevention Coalition (link)

Back to top



Read story

Confronting bias against obese patients

Medical educators are starting to raise awareness about how weight-related stigma can impair patient-physician communication and the treatment of obesity. Read story

Read story


American Medical News is ceasing publication after 55 years of serving physicians by keeping them informed of their rapidly changing profession. Read story

Read story

Policing medical practice employees after work

Doctors can try to regulate staff actions outside the office, but they must watch what they try to stamp out and how they do it. Read story

Read story

Diabetes prevention: Set on a course for lifestyle change

The YMCA's evidence-based program is helping prediabetic patients eat right, get active and lose weight. Read story

Read story

Medicaid's muddled preventive care picture

The health system reform law promises no-cost coverage of a lengthy list of screenings and other prevention services, but some beneficiaries still might miss out. Read story

Read story

How to get tax breaks for your medical practice

Federal, state and local governments offer doctors incentives because practices are recognized as economic engines. But physicians must know how and where to find them. Read story

Read story

Advance pay ACOs: A down payment on Medicare's future

Accountable care organizations that pay doctors up-front bring practice improvements, but it's unclear yet if program actuaries will see a return on investment. Read story

Read story

Physician liability: Your team, your legal risk

When health care team members drop the ball, it's often doctors who end up in court. How can physicians improve such care and avoid risks? Read story

  • Stay informed
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • RSS
  • LinkedIn