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NIDA Home > Publications > NIDA Notes > Vol. 20, No. 3 > Director's Column

Inhalant Abuse: Danger Under the Kitchen Sink
Director's Column
Vol. 20, No. 3 (October 2005)

By NIDA Director Nora D. Volkow, M.D.

NIDA Director, Dr. Nora D. Volkow

Drug abuse among the Nation's young people declined substantially in the past three years, with 600,000 fewer teens abusing drugs, according to the most recent NIDA-University of Michigan Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey. Abuse of inhalants, however, is an exception. The percentage of eighth-graders who have at least once sought intoxication by inhaling spray paints, nail polish remover, lighter fluid, glue, marking pens, aerosols, cleaning fluid, or other volatile substances has increased 2 years in a row and now stands at 17.3 percent. This trend is alarming and unacceptable.

Why would anyone empty a container of lighter fluid into a cup and inhale the fumes, or repeatedly sniff marking pens? Inhalant abusers breathe in a substance's vapors for effects resembling alcohol inebriation, including mild stimulation, loss of inhibition, and distorted perceptions. Inhalants generally affect the same areas of the brain as alcohol and other addictive drugs, so it is not surprising that abusers experience intoxication in addition to nausea, vomiting, slurred speech, and loss of coordination. Older children and young adolescents may seek out inhalants as an easily obtainable substitute for alcohol. Intoxication occurs quickly and usually lasts only a few minutes, making abuse of inhalants easier to conceal than abuse of alcohol or marijuana.

We cannot take lightly even one-time experimentation with these toxic chemicals. For some unlucky children, just a single session of repeated inhalations has caused permanent organ damage or death. Organs at risk from inhalant abuse include the lungs, brain, liver, heart, and kidneys. From 2001 to 2002, the Nation's emergency departments reported a near tripling of the number of people requiring medical treatment after inhalant abuse (from 522 to 1,496). Some abusers experience restlessness, nausea, sweating, anxiety, and other symptoms of withdrawal when they stop taking the drug. Like any other drug when abused, inhalants can also lead to accidents and injuries.

NIDA is concerned that the latest MTF survey shows that the percentage of eighth-graders who believe it is dangerous to try inhalants once or twice has declined for three years and is now only 38.7 percent. These survey results parallel and may help to explain the current rise in abuse. Evidence shows that the public's perception of the risk involved in drug taking can affect rates of drug abuse. For example, an earlier peak in inhalant abuse occurred in 1995, when only 42 percent of 10th-graders believed that trying these substances was dangerous and 21.6 percent of eighth-graders had abused inhalants at least once. That trend reversed after a national media campaign, sponsored by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, highlighted the health consequences associated with inhalant abuse. The abuse of inhalants dropped in tandem with a rise in the perception of risk.

Parents of teenagers may be unaware of the risks of inhalant abuse. Even those who are watchful for signs of alcohol or drug abuse may not realize the risk associated with products found under the kitchen sink and in the garage. For this reason, NIDA is offering science-based information on inhalant abuse to today's parents and young people at a new Web site, Adults don't have to clear out cabinets, utility closets, and garage shelves to keep young people safe from inhalant abuse. Rather, they should be aware of the problem, learn the facts, and communicate with children in a way that guides them toward healthy life choices.

In January, NIDA joined leaders of the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America to discuss the magnitude of youth inhalant abuse, underlying reasons, effects on the brain, and strategies to convince susceptible youth of the danger. The Institute participated in the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition's National "Inhalants & Poisons Awareness Week" in March. We will continue to work and collaborate to alert youth and the public that inhalants—often the first drugs that young people abuse—are addictive and dangerous.


Volume 20, Number 3 (October 2005)

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