The Silent Epidemic: Teens and the Use of Inhalants

According to the most recent study by the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, nearly seventeen million Americans have tried huffing or inhaling the intoxicating fumes from common household products. Despite a small decline in huffing since 1995, experts say that millions of American kids will try huffing at least once, and some of those will develop a habit. This is the “silent epidemic” and it needs to be more recognized.

Easy access to chemicals makes huffing a popular alternative for teens. Inhalants effect the biological and neurobiological involvement by abusing brain receptors in the neurotransmitter system. These areas of the brain change by an action of the different chemicals, which are facilitated by inhaling or breathing in enough molecular levels to change the biological influences, which leads to intoxication.

More adolescents are using inhalants than those who use illicit drugs. Teenagers who might never try illegal drugs may try inhalants because they are legal, and easy to access. Inhalants are inexpensive and relatively easy to steal. Inhalants come in many shapes and forms. Kids find it in spray paint, glue, shoe polish, and Toluene. Studies show that white Caucasians and Hispanics among the ages of twelve to seventeen are more likely to use inhalants. In junior high schools, teens find easy access to chemicals located in the wood shop, auto shop, and the janitor closet that will get them high. Parents need to be educated, as well as teachers, coaches, counselors, and young children to the warning signs of intoxication from inhalants, and that every day chemicals can be used for this purpose.

There are one thousand common household products that can be used for intoxicating proposes. These volatile chemicals such as Toluene and other fumes, can be inhaled and offer a rush that lasts for forty five minutes or more. These products are legal, inexpensive, and easy to get. Studies have shown that it is easy to walk into any hardware store and walk out with a can of paint thinner, or any other chemical that can be used to get high by huffing.

Stephen Dewey, an inhalant researcher at the U.S. Department of Energy in Brookhaven New York, says that many parents and school teachers don’t even realize how easy and dangerous these products are, and that they are being used by our youth to get high. Addiction is just one of the many pitfalls that kids who huff go through. Many kids turn to inhalants as a cheap and easy way to get high; yet huffing can easily turn into a fatal mistake. Inhalants can trigger a dangerously irregular heartbeat, even in the first time user. These kids may start out laughing or giddy, and several minutes later they are dead.

We have no accurate statistics on how many kids have died from huffing, due to the fact that many of these deaths are mistakenly documented as suicides or accidents. Their friends don’t want to get caught so they say that they were depressed and that it probably was a suicide. The parents hope that if they deny there is a problem it might go away; they don’t want their child’s name dragged through the mud by the stigma of addiction. This way the huffer never gets found out. Denial is a subtle foe and with it comes unresolved issues regarding the danger and abuse of inhalants.

The following are some known substances that are categorized as being abused by inhalation:
• Hydrocarbons
• Nitrites
• Anesthetics
• Alcohol
• Halogen compounds
• Airplane glue
• Scotch-guard
• Pam cooking sprays
• Carbon tetrachloride – used in swimming pools
• Gasoline
• Paint thinner
• Butane
• White out or correction fluid
• Colored markers

There are other items too numerous to list, because there are over fourteen hundred known substances that are categorized as a capable substance that can be abused by huffing.

Often children are abusing inhalants right in front of us, and without our knowledge. The youth of today abuse potentially toxic substances because they like how it makes them feel. It may produce a feeling of euphoria, which is associated with inhalants. As parents, teachers, counselors, and any other professional, we should fear that inhalant abuse could become the “in thing” to do in our neighborhoods schools and that peer pressure will prompt others to experiment with toxic inhalant products.

There are physical and mental complications associated with inhalant abuse. These include:
• Cardiac arrhythmias
• Suffocation
• Asphyxia
• Unintended trauma
• Damage to the optic nerve
• Diminishing of cognitive abilities
• Kidney damage
• Liver damage
• Heart diseases
• Bone disease
• Breathing disruptions

Worst yet, according to medical professionals it is a fact that few young people care or feel that the above things will ever happen to them. Statistically it does happen and most children that suffer from any of these ailments eventually die at a young age. Inhalers that abuse chemicals have permanent brain damage and an increase of problems with their organs, such as the lungs, heart, and liver.

There is hope to this bleak epidemic if the public can recognize the dangers that inhalants pose, and that through our resources we will become more aware of what is going on with our youth. There are many studies and information available to help in resolving the silent and deadly abuse of inhalants.


“Youths Die by Inhaling Household Substances” Inhalant Abuse: Killer of Young People. 1996. 71 Mar. 2005

“Inhalant’s Hidden Threat” EBSCOhost. Jun. 2002. 16 Mar. 2005

“Millions of Teens use Inhalants at Least Once” EBSCOhost. May 2002. 16 Mar. 2005

“Substance Use Rates among American Indian Adolescents” EBSCOhost. 2000. 16 Mar. 2005