For years, the popular TV commercial with fried eggs and the slogan 'This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs' worked to discourage conventional drug use among young Americans.
But today children and teens are finding new, inexpensive and more convenient ways to get high by using products - found under the kitchen sink or in the bathroom of their homes - that are just as harmful and potentially deadly as drugs like marijuana, cocaine and heroine. In fact, about 10 to 15 percent of youth have reported using inhalants at some point in their life to get high.
"Parents are often not aware that kids are using inhalants like cleaning fluids, shoe polish and glue to get high because the signs of abuse are often subtle. Plus, these products don't fit in with traditional thinking about what constitutes drug abuse," says David Rosen, M.D., MPH, chief of adolescent medicine in the Department of Pediatrics and Communicable Diseases at the University of Michigan Health System.
Inhalant abuse may seem like youthful experimentation to some, but it can lead to very serious health consequences and death, even the first time they are used, says Rosen.
With the kids home from school for the summer, Rosen says it's the perfect time to discuss the dangers of inhalant abuse, and he offers some suggestions on how and when to do so, as well as tips on how to detect inhalant abuse with your child.
According to The Partnership for a Drug-Free America, inhalants are products that can be sniffed, snorted, bagged (fumes inhaled from a plastic bag) or "huffed" (inhalant-soaked rag, sock or roll or toilet paper in the mouth) to achieve a high. Inhalants also are sniffed directly from the container.
Most often, kids who use inhalants are younger teens who don't have a lot of experience with other drugs. They also tend to be male and have high risk factors for drug abuse including depression, family dysfunction, low socioeconomic status and poor school performance.
But spotting inhalant abuse can be hard, says Rosen. To help, he encourages parents to be on the look-out for these three signs of abuse:
• Mental and physical changes: "Some of the more important things for parents to look for are changes in behavior, school performance, grooming, weight, or peer group," says Rosen. "These should all be red-alerts to parents that something serious may be going on with their child."
• Tell-tale clues in the bedroom: "Parents often begin to worry when they unexpectedly find substances in their child's room," says Rosen. "They need to ask themselves why a can of gasoline would be in their child's bedroom or why there are air fresheners under the bed or in the closet. These are all signs that a child may be abusing inhalants."
• A rash around the nose or mouth: Some kids who are regularly using inhalants will develop a rash around their nose or mouth from the use of the inhalants.
While the effects of "huffing" are short-lived - children who are abusing inhalants are often disoriented, inattentive, irritable, drowsy, depressed and lacking in coordination - inhalant abuse can carry long-term health consequences that affect the brain, liver and heart. And inhalant abuse is suspected of causing chronic brain damage, says Rosen.
Inhalants also can cause death, even when used for the first time. "Sudden sniffing death syndrome" is a term used when inhalant use causes severe heart rhythm abnormality that leads to sudden death. And one in five kids who die from it is using inhalants for the very first time, notes Rosen.
Talk to your kids about inhalant abuse
"If parents are concerned that their child might be using inhalants, the first thing to do is ask," advises Rosen. "If your child denies it, but your suspicions are strong, it's worth a trip to your primary health care provider. This provides your child with an opportunity to confidentially talk with someone who can offer him or her help."
And before you even have reason for concern, Rosen suggests talking with your child about the dangers of inhalant abuse. He recommends that parents broach the topic with their children as early as age 10, before they are likely to encounter social and peer situations where inhalant abuse may be present.
"Talking about inhalant abuse and other drugs at home in a values-oriented way is the responsibility of every parent," says Rosen. "I would encourage parents to be informed about inhalants so that the information they provide to their child about drug abuse is accurate and up-to-date."