Putting a Halt to Huffing: Inhalant Abuse Prevention

WebMD Live Events Transcript

One in five students in America has inhaled or "huffed" common household products to get high by the time he or she reaches the eighth grade. On March 24 Harvey Weiss of National Inhalant Prevention Coalition joined us to help us understand the deadly risks of huffing as we observe National Inhalants & Poisons Awareness Week.

The opinions expressed herein are the guests' alone and have not been reviewed by a WebMD physician. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

Welcome to WebMD Live, Harvey. Thank you for joining us today. Can you describe for us the typical inhalant user?

The typical inhalant user is any child. Every child is vulnerable to experimentation with inhalants. There's no stereotypical youngster out there. There is a perception that inhalant users are from a lower socioeconomic class or from a particular ethnic background, but that is not true.

I think many parents might be shocked at how young children are when they start "huffing."

That is another perception of the type of person that is huffing. Just yesterday I talked to someone whose 5-year-old child was a huffer. Inhalant use usually peaks about the sixth or seventh grade so children are starting before that age, so 11 or 12 years old is the average age of first use.

This is a lot younger than most of us think of when we picture a substance abuser.

That's true. Inhalants are usually the first substance a child will experiment with, oftentimes before alcohol and tobacco and certainly before marijuana.

The typical inhalant user is any child. Every child is vulnerable to experimentation with inhalants.

We as parents are always getting messages to talk with our children about alcohol and tobacco, but no one told us to keep the kids away from the whipped cream. What should we be looking for? What is being abused?

Any number of products can be abused or misused:

  • Any type of aerosol or spray can product, such as whipped cream, which has nitrous oxide as a propellant.
  • Air freshener.
  • Cooking sprays, like PAM.
  • Typewriter correction fluid, such as Wite-out.
  • Computer cleaner, sometimes called "canned air."
  • Body deodorant. One becoming very popular with young boys is a product called Axe.
  • Refrigerant in air conditioners.
  • Butane
  • Propane

That lists just a few of the products that are around everybody's house that can be misused.

How can parents tell if their child is huffing?

There are a number of signs to look out for if you think your child is huffing:

  • There is a common link between inhalant abuse and problems in school, such as failing grades, chronic absences and general apathy.
  • Look for paints or stains on the body or clothing, especially face and hands, the presence of chemical soaked rags, plastic or paper bags, socks or clothing and latex balloons.
  • There could be a drunk, dazed, dizzy or drowsy appearance lacking explanation. There can be a sudden loss of weight and appetite. There can be anxiety, excitability or irritability.
  • There could be red or runny eyes or nose; spots, sores or rash around the mouth or nose; a chemical breath odor; nausea, loss of appetite or drooling.
  • Most important of all -- there can be unexplainable abused products hidden nearby or in possession of the suspected abuser, such as aerosol sprays or paint, lighters or refills, glues, solvents, propane, etc.

And since these products are normal household items, not illegal drugs, most parents wouldn't be on the lookout, would they?

Certainly not. Parents need to be vigilant about the potential of their child misusing these products. Parents and teachers need to be aware of whether these products are suddenly disappearing or being used up too quickly.

A child can die from even first-time use or experimentation of inhalant or the fifth or tenth time. It's like playing Russian roulette with their lives.

Can you describe exactly what the dangers are? Parents need to have the facts in order to have a good conversation with their child about inhalants.

There are a number of serious consequences to even experimenting with inhalants, the most serious of which is something called sudden sniffing death syndrome. A child can die from even first-time use or experimentation of inhalant or the fifth or tenth time. It's like playing Russian roulette with their lives. I talk with about 100 parents a year who have lost their children due to inhalants, so I can assure you this is a very dangerous and potentially fatal activity.

Misuse of these products can also lead to other consequences. Because these products are attracted to fatty cells in the body, a number of things can occur:

  • Short-term memory loss.
  • Hearing loss.
  • Spasms in the arms and legs.
  • Permanent brain damage.
  • Liver or kidney damage.

There has also been some research that indicates the fetal effects of using inhalants may be very similar to fetal alcohol syndrome.

One of the outcomes can be that of intoxication, which will impair judgment and reaction time. Some other things that can happen are emotional instability and cognitive impairment (staggering or stumbling) and there could be a loss of sense of smell.

Not all of these could happen the first or second time an inhalant is used, but it will have an accumulative effect on your child's body.

Do kids who start huffing in grade school usually go on to using more and harder drugs as they get older?

It depends on whether they continue on with risky choices and behavior. There has been some research that has indicated if a child exhibits risky behavior by using inhalants at age 11 or 12 there's a strong indication that they will go on to other substances later in their teenage years or even in college.

If I suspect my son is huffing, is there a test the doctor can do to find out for sure?

The normal tests for substance abuse do not include screening for inhalants whether it's blood, urine or hair samples.

What a parent needs to determine is exactly what products they suspect their child is abusing and they need to find out the components of those products. What I would recommend is either calling the manufacturer or better still, calling their local poison control center at 1-800-222-1222.

If indeed a parent, guardian or teacher suspects that a child may be using inhalants, they should speak to their family doctor, the school nurse or possibly the guidance counselor in the school.

Parents need to have conversations with their children about anything that can be a potential poison.

Do the poisons build up in the body? Is someone more likely to die if they keep using or is it just as possible to die the first time?

Certainly a person can die the first time, but there is a number of ways a person can die from using inhalants, only one of them being sudden sniffing death. Because of the mental and judgment impairment inhalants cause there is a great likelihood for something like an automobile accident to occur.

If someone continues on and becomes a heavy inhalant user there will be a buildup of toxins in their body, which goes back to the brain and causes neural impairments that I mentioned earlier.

How do I talk to my kids without it seeming like I am accusing them?

What is important, above all else, is to build up a trust with your child, so that you can talk to them about various life-threatening dangers and unintended consequences that may occur from using products like this.

Young people make choices all the time and they take risks. Some of those risks are unavoidable. The obligation that a parent ought to have is to be able to give honest and factual information to their child so they can make appropriate decisions for themselves.

How do you talk to preschool age children about huffing and the dangers to them?

Parents need to have conversations with their children about anything that can be a potential poison. When parents are educating their children about poisons they tell them not to eat or drink something that could make them sick like furniture polish or detergent. They should add to these conversations that these types of things are also not supposed to be smelled directly. So, when you are giving your child a poison prevention message, about any poison , just add smelling, sniffing or otherwise misusing a product to the other things you tell them not to do because they could harm themselves. Doing this insures that all of the poison concepts get lumped together.

Does it help to use poison alert stickers?

I generally think it's a good idea. It's a good visual to warn youngsters away from making bad choices and the most effective with very, very young children. They can make the visual and mental connection between visual and danger.

When we started our program in Texas in 1991, we made a conscious choice to get the poison prevention message to the youngest children, including preschoolers. We conducted independent focus groups to ensure that the wrong message was not being given to a youngster.

Poison is poison, and it is important to get that message across.

Inhalant abuse is everybody's problem and everybody needs to be part of the solution.

How often you should you talk to your children about huffing?

My response is that a strong message has to be given. It shouldn't just be one talk and you feel like you've accomplished your parental obligations. You have to give the message and be clear about it, be consistent, and reinforce it at every opportunity. Please keep in mind it is your child's life that is at risk, and I feel any parent should consider this when they talk to their child.

Ongoing conversations about health issues -- drug use, poison prevention, tobacco use, sexual health -- need to be just that: ongoing between parent and child. One talk doesn't do it, as our guest pointed out.

Where can parents get more support or join in a community effort to address this problem?

There are a number of ways to get involved. Contacting us through our 800 number, which is 1-800-269-4237, or through our web site, which is www.inhalants.org. We have free resources available, and even though this week is National Inhalants and Poisons Awareness Week, the resources we have for the week can be used any time. There are materials to conduct an awareness campaign, a how-to guide, camera-ready art to make overheads for presentation, camera-ready art to reproduce brochures, fliers and bag stuffers among other things.

Are there ways to show them pictures of huffing users as a prevention method?

One thing they can do is go to our web site where there are a number of images you can download and print. We do not provide pictures that exaggerate the danger, because you can't scare them straight, you just have to provide appropriate information.

Why are kids huffing? What attracts them to this deadly practice?

There are a number of reasons why this problem is occurring, some of which are:

  • Potentially abused products, when used as designed, are legal, useful, and serve many appropriate needs in our society. So, there is almost an inexhaustible supply of products that can be abused.
  • Products are universally available in the home, school, and convenience, grocery and auto supply stores.
  • Products are free and generally inexpensive.
  • Laws prohibiting sale of products to minors are difficult to enforce.
  • Legal consequences of abuse are minimal.
  • No complex paraphernalia are necessary to use the products.
  • Youth do not have to go to a "dealer" to obtain products, they can be bought easily.
  • Use can occur anywhere.
  • Products are easy to conceal.
  • Use is difficult to detect.
  • Targeted education and awareness programs are not available in many schools and communities.
  • Adults are generally not aware of the problem and tend to deny that "their" children may be sniffing or huffing.
  • Children are generally unaware of the consequences of their choices.

This is National Inhalants & Poisons Awareness Week. What are your goals for this?

The goal of National Poisons and Inhalants Awareness week, which is in its 13th year, is to alert communities and families about the dangers of inhalant abuse.

This year we have almost 1,000 communities across the country making an effort to protect children in their communities. The program is designed to meet the needs of various consumers in a community, in a school, in a region or even statewide. People must understand that the only ways to prevent unintended consequences from the misuse of common household and office products is education and awareness and being aware of what your child is doing.

Johnson is a young Tennessee lad who was 17 years old and experimented with inhalants. He got in his car and ran into a tree and was killed

We are almost out of time. Before we wrap things up for today, do you have any final words for us?

First I want to thank WebMD for giving me the opportunity to speak to everybody that's reading. This gives me a forum to talk for a moment about one of the most dangerous practices I can imagine. It has to do with young people making inappropriate choices for themselves with consequences they can never imagine occurring.

A mom said to me one afternoon, "Surely Johnson is not the only one who experimented with inhalants. The others just got lucky." Johnson is a young Tennessee lad who was 17 years old and experimented with inhalants. He got in his car and ran into a tree and was killed. He's like any other young man, like your son, your daughter or the kids who go to school with your children.

I encourage everybody to get involved in prevention efforts in their community. Contact us and request our materials. Start an effort in a school, in your church, in your state. Recently an unfunded prevention initiative was established in Tennessee and already tens of thousands of people are receiving potentially lifesaving materials.

Inhalant abuse is everybody's problem and everybody needs to be part of the solution.

Thank you for your time.

Our thanks to Harvey Weiss for joining us today. And thanks to you, members, for your great questions. I'm sorry we couldn't get to all of them. For more information, please visit the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition online at www.inhalants.org.

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Last Editorial Review: 3/30/2005