"Why does that guy keep breathing into that stupid paper bag?"
"Did you see that kid back there? Looks kinda’ dazed."
"Oh no, I think she’s passed out. Wait, is she still breathing?"
Ever seen someone at school weaving around like he’s drunk, but you know he’s never taken a drink? Maybe he smelled funny – like gasoline or rubbing alcohol or even air freshener. Or perhaps he talked about seeing things – hallucinations – that you know aren’t there.
What’s really going on?
What you may have observed is someone under the effect of inhalants. These are common household substances that people actually sniff – or “huff”– to get high.
This year, National Inhalants and Poison Prevention Week takes place the week of March 20-26, and aims to shed light on this pressing matter. “Just a single session of repeated inhalations can cause permanent organ damage or death,” according to NIDA Acting Deputy Director Dr. David Shurtleff. “Most inhalants produce a rapid high that resembles alcohol intoxication. Given the wide availability of these substances and the severe health consequences they can produce, inhalant abuse is a serious problem.”
Sara Bellum attended a news conference this week about this topic and its dangers. Erin Davis, mom of a teenager, was there to tell her story of inhalant addiction. For 2 years, she was addicted to inhaling computer keyboard cleaning spray. During that time, she had a seizure from the toxic effects to her brain; she was charged with reckless driving; and she even lost her parenting rights.
As the Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) Gil Kerlikowske noted, “Just because a product is legal doesn't mean it is safe.” Dr. Shurtleff reminded the audience that “these products are poisons.”
When you use these products, be safe—point them away from your face, not toward it.
March 18–24, 2012, marks the 20th observance of National Inhalants and Poisons Awareness Week. The good news is that fewer teens are inhaling poisons and chemicals to get high, according to NIDA’s 2011 Monitoring the Future study. Use has been declining since about the mid-2000s, especially among 8th and 11th graders.
Still, even one person using an inhalant is too many. Here are some facts about inhalant use that you might not know.
Helium isn’t harmless. You may have seen people inhale helium out of a balloon at a party to make their voices sound funny. But doing so can be dangerous, and in rare cases it can even cause sudden death. This happened recently to a 14-year-old in Oregon who inhaled helium out of a tank.
Inhalants can affect speech. Inhalants rob cells of oxygen, which can harm your brain. Using inhalants repeatedly can affect the hippocampus—a brain area that helps control memory—so that a person may lose the ability to learn new things or have a hard time carrying on a simple conversation.
Even if a person stops using, the damage may already be done. Some effects of inhalant use may never go away. These include hearing loss, limb spasms, and damage to the bone marrow and to the central nervous system (or brain).
Inhalants can be addictive. Although not very common, some people may become addicted to inhalants after long-term use.
And never forget about sudden sniffing death, which can result from irregular and rapid heart rhythms caused by sniffing inhalants. It can occur the first time or 100th time a person uses inhalants. Read other SBB posts that address inhalants.