The Fainting Game
Barbara Schroeder talks about sucking helium from balloons, which makes her voice sound like Minnie Mouse. "I get a little light-headed, but it's no big deal," says Schroeder of York, Pa. When told that breathing in helium is using an inhalant drug, Schroeder protests. "It is not," she says. "Everybody does it. It's funny." She pauses and asks about smelling markers. That, too, is an inhalant drug. "I had no idea," Schroeder says with a frown.
That's the problem. Most people don't know much about inhalant drugs, or if they are familiar with things like sniffing glue or "huffing," many parents don't realize that common household items are used by their kids to get high.
In 2004, CNN.com reported that inhalant use is rising among adolescents. The Partnership for a Drug-Free America reports that sixth graders are exposed to inhalants when they enter middle school. Research from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) shows children as young as fourth grade are abusing inhalants.
One reason inhalants are growing in popularity among young people is because they are so accessible. They are readily available in cabinets under the kitchen sink, in a box of school supplies or next to the computer. Kids are sniffing air freshener or inhaling the compressed air used to clean keyboards. It's a quick, easy high, using ordinary household products.
Oftentimes, kids don't consider it drug use because they aren't using an illegal substance, like marijuana. However, inhalants are among the most dangerous – if not the most dangerous – substance abuse. The short-lived high is caused by a deprivation of oxygen to the brain.
Inhalant use can kill the first time – or any time – because the lack of oxygen can cause cardiopulmonary arrest. Regular or chronic use of inhalants can damage the brain, liver, kidneys, heart and lungs. Freon can cause internal frostbite. Users can suffocate (from putting plastic bags over the head, for example) or choke to death.
The Four Categories
Inhalants are divided into four categories:
- Volatile solvents – Include items such as nail polish remover, lighter fluids, paint thinner, cleaning products, correction fluid, felt-tip markers and gasoline.
- Aerosols – Iinclude items such as hair spray, spray paint, computer duster and anything that comes from an aerosol can.
- Gases – Include helium, nitrous oxide (laughing gas), freon, ether, butane and chloroform.
- Nitrites – Include the chemicals cyclohexyl nitrite, amyl nitrite and butyl nitrite. Amyl nitrite is a prescription drug to treat angina. The nitrites are sealed in capsules and are "popped" to release the vapors and are referred to as "poppers" in street lingo.
"Nitrous oxide (laughing gas) seems to be the most widely-used inhalant at this time," says Ty Ridenour, a research associate in Penn State University's Prevention Research Center. "People seem to prefer the effect that nitrous oxide has on them, and they do not have to worry about getting things like spray paint on themselves. Another reason that nitrous oxide seems to be used is that it often can be purchased at raves already inside of a balloon or from 'head shops' in ready-to-use canisters."
Computer duster is also popular, Ridenour says, because its effects mimic nitrous, and it is inexpensive.
How do kids inhale the compressed air used to clean computer equipment (also known as computer duster)? They put the straw that is supposed to blow air from between the keyboard keys into their mouth and inhale. Items with strong fumes are easy to sniff from containers, like markers or glue. Soaking a rag and stuffing it into one's mouth is known as huffing. Some inhalant abusers will spray an aerosol can contents directly into their mouth or nose, or they'll do what is called "bagging," spraying a substance into a plastic or paper bag and inhaling. Another popular way to inhale is to fill a balloon and inhale, similar to the popular sucking helium.
What You Can Do
As with any drug, parents need to be aware of the signs of possible use and abuse. The following are often signs that a youth is using inhalants:
- Chemical odors on breath or clothes;
- Paint stains, particularly on the face;
- Soaked rags;
- Hidden empty cans;
- Appearing drunk, especially without alcohol on the breath;
- Slurred speech or a unusually deep voice;
- Frequent or unusual nose bleeds;
- Lack of coordination;
Considering their easy access, particularly the solvents and aerosols, what can parents do to prevent their children from experimenting or abusing inhalants?
"First, parents must make it very clear to their children both with words and their own behavior that they are against use of any drugs, and explain to them that inhalants are a dangerous drug," Ridenour says. "Second, keeping track of what children do and who they hang out with is vital to preventing many risky behaviors, including use of inhalants. Third, it is very important to help children pursue things that help them mature in healthy ways. This can be done by spending time with them doing things like reading, things that the child enjoys and helping them to pursue the good activities or hobbies that they want to. Fourth, children need to learn ways to handle difficult emotions such as sadness, frustration or disappointment. These days, many people express these feelings as anger or irritation and get themselves into trouble. Children are learning to handle difficulties using anger and irritation, and they are getting into trouble, too."
After Schroeder learned how harmful inhalants were – "I had no idea they were this dangerous," – she decided that the light-headedness she felt after sucking helium from a balloon was a serious warning.