SATURDAY, Sept. 4, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Kids don't need money and a friendly neighborhood pusher to get high these days: Experts say teens now are more likely to find their drug of choice right in the family home.
According to a recent federal government survey, more than 2.6 million U.S. children over the age of 12 admitted to having inhaled a solvent, aerosol or other household product for a cheap, powerful high at least once in the past. And that number is climbing, experts say.
"People fear heroin and cocaine, but when you look at the prevalence rates of these drugs in kids and teens, it's relatively low compared to inhalants. And the reason for that is availability," said David Shurtleff, director of the Division of Basic Neuroscience and Behavioral Research at the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Especially worrying is the age at which children begin experimenting with inhaling household products, commonly called "huffing" or "sniffing."
"If you look at some of the data, first use on average is about 12 years of age," said Harvey Weiss, executive director of the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition. "We found that inhalants are used even before alcohol and tobacco."
And in a reversal of trends seen with other drugs, surveys suggest young girls experiment with inhalants earlier than boys.
Cheap and easily available, huffing can be tempting for bored or rebellious kids keen on getting high. Children and their parents may also tend to underestimate the health dangers of inhalant abuse, experts say.
Education is critical, according to Weiss. "The only way to prevent inhalant abuse is through education and awareness," he said.
"When we started in Texas in 1990, Texas had the highest inhalant abuse rate in the country. But then we started to get the message out -- starting in kindergarten, through teachers, parents, the faith community, scout groups. And what we saw was that inhalant use went down," Weiss said.
Unfortunately, the state government cut funding for most drug abuse education programs in 1995. "Within six or seven months, the next time a survey came around, inhalant use had skyrocketed," he said. "There has to be a consistent message out there."
That message has to remind teens that huffing kills: At least 100 deaths are attributed to inhalant abuse in the United States each year.
"Even a single exposure can cause asphyxiation, suffocation and choking," Shurtleff said. And because coroners usually don't test for inhalant abuse during an autopsy, the actual numbers of U.S. deaths linked to huffing could be much higher.
Inhaled solvents and other substances are extremely toxic to the nervous system, said Shurtleff, who has conducted extensive research on the subject.
"The drug that's been studied the most is toluene, which is found in paint thinners and has the highest abuse rate in children," he said. Prolonged sniffing of toluene causes targeted destruction of specific brain cells, especially those concerned with hearing. It also wreaks havoc on the myelin sheath that coats nerve fibers. As myelin erodes, motor control deteriorates over time.
"With prolonged use you can actually develop serious nerve damage, resulting in tremors of the hands, since it affects motor neurons," Shurtleff said. "It has a lot of devastating effects on the nervous system."
But there are more subtle signs.
Because most inhaled compounds are nervous system depressants (similar to alcohol), huffing episodes often mimic drunkenness, with users exhibiting poor coordination and slurred speech. Restlessness and trouble sleeping are other signs parents should look out for.
"It's critical to know these early warning signs," Shurtleff said.
Sadly, many parents don't intervene until it's too late.
"My sense is that many parents do know the dangers of inhalant abuse, but they think that their child, in particular, wouldn't be doing something like that," Weiss said.
"I hear it so frequently -- especially when I talk with parents whose children died from huffing," he said. "They say, 'My God, I've talked to my child about everything -- marijuana, alcohol, even cigarettes, other hard drugs. But I never thought my child would do something like that.'"
Weiss believes education is key, both for parents and for children at risk. "One of the core beliefs that I have is that if children are given appropriate information, they'll probably make appropriate choices for themselves," he said.
"If you surround them with appropriate information, kids will get the message," he added.
Parents, teachers and others looking to educate youngsters about the dangers of inhalant abuse can find more at the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition.