Inhalants: Usage trends

Last modified: Sunday, 31. May 2009 - 4:32 pm

Much inhalant use is confined to early adolescence. But some users become dependent, and they continue abusing inhalants into adulthood. For other users, inhalants may be the first stop on a long path of misusing dangerous substances.
A study published in 2000 in the Journal of Substance Abuse compared three groups of college students at a university in New Mexico: Those who had used inhalants before age 18; those who smoked marijuana before age 18 (but did not use inhalants); and those who used neither marijuana nor inhalants before age 18. Researchers reported that early use of inhalants greatly increased college students’ risk of frequent drinking, binge drinking, smoking, and illicit-drug use. Compared with early marijuana use alone, early inhalant use was associated with twice the rate of binge and frequent drinking, and significantly greater rates of tobacco and drug use. The researchers suggested that universities identify early inhalant users and target them for special intervention and prevention efforts.
In a study of imprisoned youth in Canada, published in the October 1999 issue of the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, many participants cited inhalants as their first substance of abuse, preceding cigarettes, marijuana, illegal hallucinogens, and opiates.
Age, gender, and ethnic trends
The authors of the two studies mentioned above emphasized that this progression does not necessarily mean that young people who use inhalants will later move on to other drugs. Instead, the factors that make youths vulnerable to inhalant use — social and environmental influences, parents, biology and genetics, emotional and learning disorders, attitudes, personality, and behavior — may also increase the likelihood of their turning to other mood-changing substances. Regardless of why inhalant use begins, early inhalant use has been found to increase users’ risk of developing drinking and drug problems later in life.
Some researchers have identified adolescent depression as playing an important role in predicting who begins to use, or continues to use, illicit substances. In studies, inhalant users were found to suffer more emotional problems — particularly depression, anxiety, and anger — than those who used other drugs or did not use drugs at all. Inhalant abusers who seek treatment have high rates of psychological illnesses, especially conduct and personality disorders, and typically are dependent on another drug.
Considering the widespread abuse of inhalants, little scientific research has been done on the subject. Conducting research is complicated because inhalants are not limited to one basic compound but include a wide range of chemicals and products.
In 2002, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) dedicated about $2 million to fund studies on the nature and extent of inhalant abuse. NIDA sought proposals for research in the following areas: different types of abused substances; socio-cultural, socioeconomic, gender, and regional differences in use; and factors associated with individuals’ risk of, vulnerability to, protection against, and resistance to inhalant abuse.
Many research questions remain about the role that factors such as family, role models, existing health problems (such as mental illness, HIV/AIDS, or alcohol abuse), and peer influences play in a young person’s decision to start, continue, increase, or stop abusing inhalants.
Categorizing inhalants
The general category of inhalants is broken into smaller categories for purposes of research and discussion. Researchers and organizations working in drug abuse do not use a uniform set of subcategories, however. Common broad subcategories include three or four of the following: nitrous oxide (a gas used in anesthetic and aerosols), volatile nitrites, petroleum distillates, volatile solvents, gases, anesthetics, and aerosols.
Others place them in more specific, descriptive subcategories. The National Institute on Drug Abuse identifies six:
• industrial or household products (paint thinners or solvents, degreasers or cleaning fluids, gasoline, and volatile substances in glues)
• art and office supply solvents (correction fluids, glues, and solvents in markers)
• gases such as butane and chlorofluorocarbons used in household or commercial products (butane lighters, whipped cream dispensers, electronic contact cleaners, and refrigerant gases)
• household aerosol propellants (hair, cooking, lubricant, and fabric protector sprays)
• medical anesthetic gases (ether, chloroform, halothane, and nitrous oxide)
• aliphatic nitrites
However inhalants are categorized, the two most commonly abused types are solvents and gases.
A solvent is a substance that can dissolve another substance, and a volatile solvent is a liquid that vaporizes at room temperature. Volatile solvents include adhesives such as airplane glue and rubber cement; aerosols such as spray paint, hair spray, and air freshener; solvents such as nail polish remover, paint remover, and lighter fluid; and cleaners such as dry cleaning fluid, spot remover, and degreasers.
Gases include anesthesia used in medical procedures, as well as gases used in household or commercial products, such as butane lighters, propane tanks, whipped cream dispensers, and refrigerants.

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