Inhalants and Teens: The Cold Hard Facts

The simple act of breathing gives us all our most direct connection with the forces of life. The oxygen we inhale sustains us and allows the cells in our body to function smoothly and efficiently. Breathing is a recurrent act of renewal. But what we inhale into our lungs can poison or even kill us, if the air we take in is mixed with toxic or corrosive substances. This often happens by accident but, incredibly, some people choose to intentionally inhale hazardous odors or chemicals in a foolish attempt to experience the supposed delights of chemical intoxication. Inhalant abuse has become a chronic drug abuse problem among youth, some of whom manage to convince themselves that sucking poisonous gases or fumes into their lungs is a fun and sensible thing to do. Part of what makes inhalants so tempting is their ready availability. Manufactured chemical commodities are common to every home and business, and no law-breaking is required to obtain them. This makes such chemicals especially attractive to some adolescents who see them as a cheap, easy and un-policeable way to get high. Fumes and gases released by household cleaning chemicals, personal care products, liquid solvents, fuels, refrigerants, paints, glues and so on are hazardous to the extreme. And yet, because their neurological effects somewhat mimic those of alcohol and hallucinogens, inhalants are often seen as desirable sources for a forbidden experience. When inhalants are drawn in through the mouth or nose, they pass rapidly from the lungs to the bloodstream and on to the brain, slowing down neurological activity and leaving the user feeling dizzy, disoriented, anesthetized and possibly euphoric. These sensations will generally last for just a few minutes, which often leads enthusiasts to inhale their favorite substances over and over again. This is highly unfortunate, because the more exposure to these poisons people have, the more in danger they will be. Hallucinations, delusions, coma, seizures, convulsions and death by suffocation, asphyxiation and heart failure—all are associated with inhalant use, and that is why many view this type of drug abuse as the ultimate form of chemical Russian roulette.

Teen Inhalant Abuse by the Numbers

Inhalant abuse isn’t entirely confined to the adolescent set. But older people who engage in this behavior almost inevitably start out as teens. In a departure from the normal pattern, younger adolescents use inhalants more frequently than older teens, which is especially frightening because of how incredibly toxic these substances can be for kids whose bodies are still in the early stages of development. In the early 2000s, surveys showed that as many as one in five 8th graders had tried inhalants. Fortunately this type of chemical experimentation has become less popular since that time, with current use rates that are about half of what they used to be. The National Institute on Drug Abuse’s 2013 Monitoring the Future report revealed that 5.2 percent of 8th graders, 3.5 percent of 10th graders and 2.5 percent of 12th graders had experimented with inhalants at least once in the previous year. Past month usage rates were 2.3 percent, 1.3 percent and 1 percent for the three classes respectively, which doesn’t sound overly alarming until we realize that teens are abusing inhalants more frequently than heroin, OxyContin, Ecstasy, LSD, cocaine and methamphetamine. The good news is that inhalant use among teens has been dropping steadily for a while now (there has been a 25 percent to 30 percent reduction since 2010 alone). But intoxicating substances that can be derived or extracted from bathroom or kitchen chemicals offer the curious a convenient drug option that many find hard to resist. The 2012 Monitoring the Future report disclosed a shocking statistic: 66 percent of all 8th graders surveyed didn’t think trying inhalants once or twice was dangerous. Of course many of the 11,000-plus Americans who are rushed to emergency rooms every year for treatment from the effects of inhalants would disagree with this, since many of them were stricken following their first or second exposure to household chemicals. But as long as kids remain naïve about the true risk of inhalants, many will continue to sample these toxic substances, convinced they are not really endangering their futures or their lives—even though they unquestioningly are.

Inhalants Are the Grim Reaper’s Medicine

Inhalants are not believed to be physically addictive. But young people who become involved in drugs are often dealing with a number of serious psychological issues, and repetitive inhalant use can be a sign of deep disturbance and severe emotional turmoil. Compulsive inhalant consumption should be seen as a cry for help, and kids who get caught up in this reckless and deadly behavior may need counseling, intervention and addiction treatment services to keep their lives from spinning completely out of control. There are thousands of adolescents who experimented with inhalants who are now officially beyond saving. These young people were taken from their loved ones far too soon, and tragedies like this will unfortunately be repeated over and over until the day arrives when kids everywhere finally recognize that inhalants are toxic poisons and nothing more.

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