Muir Wood therapist, David Laing
Muir Wood Adolescent and Family Services is a Joint Commission-accredited mental health and substance use disorder treatment provider located in Petaluma, California. We provide integrated evidence-based care including psychiatry, psychotherapy, experiential therapy, wellness services, and milieu therapy for adolescents and teens, and their family members.

Aerosol Inhalant Abuse

When teenagers begin to experiment with heroin, meth or cocaine. Young teens are much more likely to start with inexpensive, legal substances that are found around the house. The vapors of everyday aerosol products like spray paint, hairspray, deodorants and air fresheners can be inhaled, or “huffed,” by kids for a mind-altering high.

The poisonous chemicals found in these pressurized containers can cause not only hazardous short-term effects, but also severe long-term damage to the brain and body. For children and teens, whose brains are still in a vulnerable developmental stage, the abuse of aerosol inhalants can cause permanent, life-altering changes.

Commonly Abused Products

Aerosol inhalant abuse starts at an early age in the United States. According to statistics from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, 17 percent of young people in America have intentionally used inhalants to get high, and 3 percent of American kids have tried inhalants by the age of 9 or 10, or around the 4th grade. Although the chemical compounds in these products may sound foreign, they aren’t hard to obtain; in fact, you probably keep many of them in your bathroom cabinet, under your kitchen sink or in the garage.

Many of the most commonly abused substances belong to a class of compounds called haloalkanes. Haloalkanes — including hydrofluorocarbons, chlorofluorocarbons, trichloroethylene and trichloroethane — are used as solvents or propellants in a variety of commercial aerosols, such as:

  • Cleaning products
  • Flame retardants
  • Lighter fuels
  • Degreasers
  • Refrigerants
  • Spray paints
  • Spray adhesives

When used according to instructions in safe conditions, these products are generally not harmful. However, abuse of aerosol inhalants has an immediate effect on the central nervous system. Over time, inhalant abuse can harm the heart, lungs and kidneys as well as the brain.

Short-Term and Long-Term Risks

Repeated use has a direct impact on the brain, affecting the areas that control motor coordination, judgment, learning, decision-making and emotions. The British Journal of Pharmacology notes that the quick, repeated inhalation of aerosols — a practice that’s common among teenagers who abuse these products — increases the concentration of chemicals that the body absorbs. A teenager who is sniffing aerosols may inhale the fumes up to 20 times within a 15-minute period, for example, greatly increasing the toxic exposure.

The short-term effects of aerosol inhalation may include excitement, dizziness, agitation, confusion, poor motor coordination, a rapid heart rate, nausea and slurred speech. In some teens, a single experiment with aerosol inhalants can be deadly. A phenomenon called “sudden sniffing death” can occur when inhaled chemicals cause a sudden increase in a young person’s heart rate, followed by cardiac arrest. According to the Nemours Foundation, most fatalities from inhalant abuse are caused by this phenomenon.

The long-term effects of inhalant abuse can change the course of a teen’s life. The chemicals in aerosol inhalants are addictive, which means that recreational use can quickly lead to a dangerous habit. Repeated abuse of aerosols can have the following effects on an adolescent’s cognitive and psychological functions:

  • Learning delays
  • Problem-solving difficulties
  • Memory loss
  • Slow speech
  • Mood swings
  • Depression
  • Loss of decision-making skills

Getting the Help You Need

At Muir Wood, we realize that the effects of abusing household aerosols can be just as devastating as the consequences of hard drug use. Our comprehensive treatment programs are designed to help boys between the ages of 12 and 17 recover their health and reclaim their futures. If you or someone in your life has a problem with inhalants, our treatment specialists can help you decide whether our innovative, gender-specific program is right for you.

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