Remember, as a kid, being curious about the strong smell of rubber cement or permanent markers? Perhaps you took a deep whiff, and noticed the brief head spin afterwards?
Most children show such curiosity, using their sense of smell to explore the world. But for an estimated 15 percent of youth, this casual interest turns to intentionally trying to get high by inhaling everyday products.
Kids can become addicted, suffer brain damage or worse. McHenry County teen Aaron Hunt recently died after huffing propane fumes, just a few months before his high school graduation.
A new study, published in Pediatrics, analyzed data from poison control centers nationwide to find that youth are abusing roughly 3,400 products. From gasoline to typewriter correction fluid, from paint thinner to helium, the products are easy for kids to access.
Nitrous oxide, which is one of the top causes of death of youth who inhale, can be found in the chargers used to make whipping cream. Butane is used in cigarette lighters. Air freshener, another top killer, can be found just about anywhere.
Some products contain warning labels about the risks of inhaling, but the most effective tool to combat abuse is community awareness, says Harvey Weiss, executive director of the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition. Weiss has seen abuse rates drop significantly in communities when school administrators, community leaders and parents understand the dangers.
According to the study, the highest number of inhalant abuse incidents were reported in 14- and 15-year-olds, but children as young as 6 may experiment with inhalants. That's why parents need to talk about the dangers early, Weiss says.
"Every parent gives the poison lecture: If you're not supposed to drink or eat something, don't." The same conversation can include inhaling too, he says. "If you're not supposed to intentionally smell something, don't do that either."
The study also showed a higher number of boys abusing inhalants, but Weiss says other data reveals girls are just as likely to try inhalants, especially at younger ages.
"Part of the attraction of the high is that it is short-lived and kids feel it's something they can control," he says. "They can do it between classes in the restroom or even in the house if the parents are unaware."
Inhalants can be especially attractive to youth who have been caught trying illegal drugs, he says, because routine drug tests can't detect inhalants. The signs of inhalant abuse can be similar to drug use, including sudden weight loss, irritability and changes in friendships or school performance.
Weiss advises watching for a rash around the nose or mouth, or marks on the hands such as spray paint or correction fluid. Keep an eye on what kids watch, too: Weiss says YouTube has occasionally contained videos of teens inhaling substances.
In essence, he says, just keep talking to your kids and your community leaders and stay aware. "Take a look around your house and see what things kids might experiment with," he says.
Lisa Applegate is a freelance writer and mom of one living in Chicago.
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