Inhalants are a pervasive type of drug that often doesn’t get enough thought or attention. However, it’s important for parents and people who are responsible for teens to be aware of the possibility and signs of inhalant abuse and how to stop it.
Inhalants can be particularly dangerous because they’re inexpensive and widely available and easy for even young children to access.
In fact, studies have found that children may begin abusing inhalants earlier than most other drugs, and while they often stop abusing inhalants in their late teens, it’s often because at that point they’ve moved onto other drugs.
Take a look at what you need to know about recognizing and preventing inhalant abuse in your children and teenagers.
Commonly Abused Inhalants
As with any drug, inhalants have an active ingredient that causes the high that users are searching for.
Inhalants usually produce a euphoric feeling in users. The effect can be caused by a variety of different ingredients. Some of the common ingredients that inhalant users are looking for include:
- Butane: found in lighter fluid, hair spray, deodorants, and spray paint
- Propane: found in gas grill fuel, air fresheners, and spray paint
- Toluene: found in airplane glue, rubber cement, paint thinner, and shoe polish
- Chlorinated hydrocarbons: found in correction fluid, spot removers, and dry-cleaning fluids
- Acetone: found in permanent markers, nail polish removers, and rubber cement
- Fluorocarbons: found in asthma sprays, Freon gas, air fresheners, hair spray, and analgesic sprays
Some intoxicating inhalants overlap, so one product, like spray paint or hair spray, may have several intoxicants in its list of ingredients.
There are several ways to abuse inhalants. Users may breathe the fumes of the product directly from its container – this is called “snorting” or “sniffing”. The term “huffing” refers to soaking a rag in the product and placing the rag over one’s face and breathing in.
Finally, inhalant users might engage in “bagging” which involves pouring the substance into a plastic bag and then breathing in the fumes.
Consequences of Inhalant Abuse
Inhalant abuse can have very serious consequences for users. One of the reasons that it’s so important to identify signs of inhalant abuse and prevent further abuse is because the practice can be so dangerous.
Repeated inhalations can displace oxygen in the lungs so high concentrations of inhalants can lead to asphyxiation. Users who bag are also at risk of suffocation, especially when using a plastic bag that they put over their heads. The use of inhalants can also sometimes lead to vomiting, which can cause users to choke.
The chemicals that users are inhaling can also cause problems in the user’s brain. Inhalants can cause abnormal electrical impulses in the brain which can lead to seizures and convulsions. In some cases, the brain shuts down most functions, which can cause the user to lapse into a coma.
Finally, users are at risk of accidental injury caused by recklessness or poor decision-making while intoxicated. For example, driving after inhaling can lead to a serious motor vehicle accident.
Recognizing Signs of Inhalant Abuse
Knowing the signs of inhalant use can help you recognize when your teen is using and put a stop to it before it gets out of hand. Inhalant use can sometimes be tough to recognize.
However, children and teens using inhalants may:
- Have bloodshot eyes or dilated pupils
- Have chapped lips or dry spots on their face
- Have a chemical odor on their breath
- Suffer from frequent nosebleeds or a chronic runny nose
- Have paint or oil stains on their hands and clothes
- Appear drunk or high, with slurred speech and uncoordinated movements
You may notice that your child suffers from headaches, cold symptoms, and stomach troubles and that they have difficulty remembering things, trouble sleeping, and vision problems.
Preventing Inhalant Abuse
It’s a good idea to keep chemicals that could be used as inhalants away from your children’s reach. Store paint thinners, fuels, oils, and other chemicals in secure containers on high shelves.
However, it’s not enough just to keep inhalants away from your children. Even if all the possible inhalants in your home are secured, that doesn’t mean that they will necessarily be secured in all of the homes your teen visits.
It’s easy for children and young teens to get the idea that inhalants are safe to experiment with – that they’re not “real drugs” like cocaine or heroin. Other children may offer your child a chance to try inhalants, and it’s better if they hear about the risks of that choice from you before that happens.
Explain to your teen what inhalants are and how they can hurt people who abuse them. Ask them if they know of anyone who uses inhalants, and let them know that you want them to come talk to you if anyone ever offers them inhalants.
Walk your child through what a scenario where someone is offering them inhalants might look like, and offer to role-play so that your child can feel practiced and confident saying “no” and leaving a situation where someone is trying to get them to use inhalants.
If your teenager is already using inhalants, they may need to see a counselor or attend a drug treatment program to support them in stopping their inhalant use.
In many cases, minor symptoms of inhalant use can be treated with over the counter medications, but serious symptoms like heart arrhythmias or brain problems require a doctor’s care.
In either case, stopping the inhalant use is an important factor in treating the problems caused by inhalant use, and drug counseling or rehab is the appropriate first step.
It can also help to talk to your child’s doctor about inhalant abuse. They can help fill you and your child in on the dangers of inhalants, the common household items that you should be aware of, the best ways to discuss inhalant abuse with your child, and how you can recognize signs of inhalant abuse should they occur.
Staying vigilant and keeping an open line of communication is your best bet for protecting your child from the dangers of inhalants.
Dr. Nalin is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, and Founder and Executive Director of Paradigm Treatment Centers, who has been a respected leader in the field of adolescent mental health for more than 20 years. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Southern California, his Master’s degree from Loyola Marymount University, his Doctoral degree from Pacific University’s APA approved Clinical Psychology program, and completed his training at the University of California, San Diego’s APA approved psychology internship program.
Dr. Nalin has provided training and mentoring to students entering the field of psychology at institutions of learning including Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology, UCSD, Pacific University, and Santa Monica College. He was also instrumental in the development of the treatment component of Los Angeles County’s first Juvenile Drug Court, which now serves as a national model.
Dr. Nalin has appeared as an expert on shows ranging from CBS News and Larry King, to CNN, The Today Show and MTV. He was also featured in an Anti-Drug Campaign for the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).
Dr. Nalin is a Diplomate of the National Institute of Sports Professionals and a Certified Sports Psychologist as well as a Certified Chemical Dependency Intervention Specialist. He lectures and conducts workshops nationally on the issues of teen mental health, substance abuse prevention, and innovative adolescence treatment.
In 2017 Dr. Nalin was awarded The Sigmund Freud Foundation and Sigmund Freud University’s Distinguished Achievement Award in recognition of his work with youth in the field of mental health over the course of his career.