Inhalants, Which Kids Do It?

Inhalant abuse and addiction are the result of deliberately and repeatedly inhaling (breathing in) fumes from such volatile substances as glue, shoe polish, gasoline, nitrous oxide, aerosol sprays, lighter fluid, spray paints, correction pens, and paint solvents. A study was therefore designed to identify the factors related to inhalant abuse and addiction.

The Study: Almost 37,000 teens were questioned about their use of inhalants. Approximately 9% of them reported using inhalants at some time. Teens who first began using inhalants at an early age were more likely to become addicted. Other factors contributing to inhalant addiction were a history of foster care placement, mental health problems, a background of physical abuse and the use of other drugs (such as cocaine or heroin).

Comment: This study does a good job in delineating which kids are into inhalant abuse and addiction in the US. The question that it doesn't answer is what can be done about it. Inhalant abuse and addiction clearly are closely intertwined with a number of other social problems.

One of our sons, Tobias Hecht, has studied the problem of inhalant use among the street children in northeast Brazil. One explanation he looked into is whether the kids used inhalants to ward off hunger and cold. But he concluded that the answer wasn't that simple. Some of the kids he interviewed said that they were less hungry while they were inhaling a substance but then were more hungry after the inhalant "high" had passed. And given a choice between food or drugs, the majority of the kids would spend money on drugs. (At Home in the Street. By Tobias Hecht. Cambridge University Press, 1998)

Inhalant addiction is a complex problem and we are a long way from finding a solution.

Barbara K. Hecht, Ph.D.
Frederick Hecht, M.D.
Medical Editors,

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NIDA Research Identifies Factors Related to Inhalant Abuse, Addiction

New research shows that young people who have been treated for mental health problems, have a history of foster care, or who already abuse other drugs have an increased risk of abusing or becoming dependent on inhalants. In addition, adolescents who first begin using inhalants at an early age are more likely to become dependent on them. The study by Dr. Li-Tzy Wu and her colleagues is published in the October 2004 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. The study was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), National Institutes of Health (NIH), Department of Health and Human Services.

The most commonly used inhalants reported by participants were glue, shoe polish, and gasoline. Other inhalants used by the participants included nitrous oxide, lighter fluid, spray paints, correction fluid, and paint solvents. Boys were more likely to have ever used gasoline or nitrous oxide, while girls favored glue, shoe polish, spray paints, correction fluid, and aerosol sprays.

"These findings suggest inhalant abuse and addiction in young people are associated with a host of co-occurring problems that may be influenced by family and other social factors," says NIDA Director Dr. Nora D. Volkow. "And, inhalant abuse may be escalating. Data reported in NIDA's Monitoring the Future (MTF) Survey show that past-year use of inhalants rose 14 percent from 2002 to 2003 - the only increase of any substance reported by MTF between 2002 and 2003."