We get a lot of comments and questions about what drugs do to your brain, including chemicals that people sniff to get high. For example, Justin posted a comment on this blog once saying he always thought that if he “huffs” markers in small doses, just every once in a while, that it will cause little or no damage to his brain cells. Maybe or maybe not. The problem is that you really don’t know when something might be dangerous for you even if other people are okay.
What’s clear is that when you inhale toxic chemicals like those in markers, paint thinner, or computer duster, it messes with your brain’s wiring and signals, so you feel almost drunk or dizzy for a while—but if you keep doing it, you can have pretty scary side effects.
In the short term, these chemicals can cause dizziness, loss of consciousness, bad mood swings, and headaches. In the long term, toxic fumes can take the place of oxygen in the blood, leading to hypoxia (low oxygen pressure in the body), which can damage your brain and other organs or even kill you. In fact, even one hit of a toxic substance can stop your heart, aka “Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome”—a tragedy that too many teens and parents have experienced. Some only come close, like Megan who stopped just in time.
Like Justin, maybe you weren’t aware of the potential consequences of huffing. Many teens and parents are not. That’s the point of National Inhalants and Poisons Awareness Month. Every year this month is a chance to educate people about the dangers of huffing, while supporting those who have already been affected. So what can you do? Maybe you can start a conversation with a friend about inhalant abuse or pass this blog along to others. You can make a difference and could maybe save a life.
Why don’t you see how you and your friends do on this short quiz about inhalants?…see if you can get them all right—let us know how you did!
1. Inhaling stuff repeatedly can cause serious damage to the:
- A. heart
- B. liver
- C. brain
- D. all of the above
2. Huffing and using illegal drugs can cause brain changes that last:
- A. for minutes
- B. for days
- C. four days
- D. for years
3. “Sudden sniffing death” can be caused by…
- A. Acute odor receptor over-activation
- B. Inhaling noxious fumes from household products like glue, hairspray, or gasoline
- C. Smelling dirty socks
- D. Inhaling noxious fumes from your little brother
- E. Smoking marijuana
4. Damage from the use of inhalants can slow or stop nerve cell activity and reduce the size of some parts of the brain, including:
- A. Cerebral cortex (the thinking part)
- B. Brainstem (controls respiration and basic activities)
- C. Cerebellum (involved in movement)
- D. All of the above
5. Inhalants cause damage to the brain because:
- A. They smell really bad
- B. They prevent oxygen from getting to neurons
- C. They cause muscles to break down
- D. All of the above
1.d, 2c, 3.b, 4.d, 5.b,
At NIDA’s Drug Facts Chat Day, we get great questions from teens all over the country about drugs. Here’s one from “hhentze,” representing Junction City High School in Oregon:
What drug is most often used by teens in the USA?
Every year since 1975, the Monitoring the Future Study has surveyed teens to better understand their drug use rates, attitudes, and beliefs. Looking over the past 10 years, data show that more and more teens are saying no to drugs, period. They are not even trying them once.
Still, to answer the question, statistics from 2009 (PDF, 362.76KB) show that the drug most often abused by teens in 8th, 10th, and 12th grades is alcohol, followed by marijuana. The third most abused drug varies by grade—for 8th graders, it’s inhalants. For 10th and 12th graders, it’s Vicodin (a prescription medication for pain). Here’s a little more info:
So, even though alcohol might be the drug most abused by teens, the good news is that the number of teens who report drinking in the last 30 days has gradually declined by as much as 40% over the past 35 years. You go, Gen Y!
Seems marijuana use is slowly creeping upwards after a steady decline that lasted almost 10 years. What’s up with that? The answer may have to do with the fact that young people are seeing marijuana as less risky than before and are more accepting of its use in general.
- Inhalants and Vicodin
With both inhalants and Vicodin, the rates of abuse among teens are about the same as they have been for the past 2-3 years. That’s pretty positive, especially since the study only recently started looking at trends in prescription drugs.
Carry out your own mini-study and see what drugs friends, relatives, or teachers think are most often abused by teens. Feel free to share what you found out with us in the comments. Spread the word, and help set the record straight.
You may remember hearing something about neurons in biology, but what about today’s word of the day: axon?
Neurons are nerve cells in the brain that communicate with each other 24/7 to control everything we do, think, and feel. The axon is the long, tunnel-like part of the neuron (see picture) that steers messages from the cell to other nerve cells or body tissues, such as muscles.
Since the axon’s only job is to transmit messages from point A to point B, it can focus on doing it fast. For this reason, many axons are lined with a fatty material called myelin, which helps the message glide through the axon quickly. Prolonged drug use can damage the axon or the myelin, causing noticeable changes in a person’s behavior over time.
For example, scientists have discovered that abusing certain drugs on a long-term basis—like inhaling fumes or markers—can eat away at myelin. Without its protective myelin lining, the axon itself is more vulnerable to harm. An axon that is damaged or is missing myelin cannot transmit messages as well to other nerve cells, if at all. For someone with damaged axons, this can mean muscle spasms, tremors or difficulty with basic motor skills, like walking, bending, or talking.
The Shoutout is gathering volume and the message is coming through loud and clear: JUST THINK TWICE!
Myth: If I smoke cigarettes now and then, I won’t get addicted.
- Think twice: Each puff of a cigarette gives a smoker about 1 to 2 milligrams of nicotine. Although that may not seem like much, it is enough to make someone addicted. Learn more.
Myth: Huffing – like sniffing Sharpies or household cleaners – really doesn’t do anything bad; just gives me a quick high.
- Think twice: In the short term, these chemicals can cause dizziness, loss of consciousness, bad mood swings, and headaches. In the long term, toxic fumes can take the place of oxygen in the blood, which can damage your brain and other organs. Learn more.
Myth: Prescription drugs can’t be dangerous if a doctor prescribes them.
- Think twice ADHD medications like Adderall can cause increased heart rate and blood pressure, psychosis, and seizures if they’re abused; pain medications like Vicodin can cause respiratory depression and arrest, and even death, particularly when combined with alcohol. Learn more.
Throughout the day on November 8, watch our Sara Bellum Blog, where we will showcase as many shoutouts as we find. Follow us on Twitter (#drugfacts2010) and check out NIDA’s National Drug Facts Week Facebook page. On November 9, check out Chat Day as we shout it out for teens everywhere – First, get the facts on drugs. Then choose health.
"Why does that guy keep breathing into that stupid paper bag?"
"Did you see that kid back there? Looks kinda’ dazed."
"Oh no, I think she’s passed out. Wait, is she still breathing?"
Ever seen someone at school weaving around like he’s drunk, but you know he’s never taken a drink? Maybe he smelled funny – like gasoline or rubbing alcohol or even air freshener. Or perhaps he talked about seeing things – hallucinations – that you know aren’t there.
What’s really going on?
What you may have observed is someone under the effect of inhalants. These are common household substances that people actually sniff – or “huff”– to get high.
This year, National Inhalants and Poison Prevention Week takes place the week of March 20-26, and aims to shed light on this pressing matter. “Just a single session of repeated inhalations can cause permanent organ damage or death,” according to NIDA Acting Deputy Director Dr. David Shurtleff. “Most inhalants produce a rapid high that resembles alcohol intoxication. Given the wide availability of these substances and the severe health consequences they can produce, inhalant abuse is a serious problem.”
Sara Bellum attended a news conference this week about this topic and its dangers. Erin Davis, mom of a teenager, was there to tell her story of inhalant addiction. For 2 years, she was addicted to inhaling computer keyboard cleaning spray. During that time, she had a seizure from the toxic effects to her brain; she was charged with reckless driving; and she even lost her parenting rights.
As the Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) Gil Kerlikowske noted, “Just because a product is legal doesn't mean it is safe.” Dr. Shurtleff reminded the audience that “these products are poisons.”
When you use these products, be safe—point them away from your face, not toward it.
According to NIDA’s glossary, polyneuropathy is a “permanent change or malfunction of nerves.” “Poly” means “many,” so multiple nerves throughout the body such as in the arms, legs, hands, and feet are affected.
Possible symptoms of polyneuropathy are weakness, the feeling of pins and needles, or burning pain. In the most extreme cases, people can have trouble breathing and experience organ failure.
Many things can cause polyneuropathy, from genetics to a nutritional deficiency. But something else can also cause it—inhaling toxic, poisonous fumes, like those found in certain household products, in order to get high.
Long-term inhalant abuse can break down myelin, a fatty tissue that surrounds and protects some nerve fibers. Myelin helps nerve fibers carry their messages quickly and efficiently throughout the body and to the brain. Damaged myelin can lead to muscle spasms and tremors or even permanent difficulty with basic actions like walking, bending, and talking.
Don’t forget about sudden sniffing death, which can occur when inhaled fumes fill up the cells in the lungs with poisonous chemicals, leaving no room for the oxygen needed to breathe. This lack of oxygen can lead to nerve damage, suffocation, and even death.
Sudden sniffing death could occur during a person’s 100th time using inhalants or the first time. There’s no way to predict it.
Learn more about the consequences of abusing inhalants.
March 18–24, 2012, marks the 20th observance of National Inhalants and Poisons Awareness Week. The good news is that fewer teens are inhaling poisons and chemicals to get high, according to NIDA’s 2011 Monitoring the Future study. Use has been declining since about the mid-2000s, especially among 8th and 11th graders.
Still, even one person using an inhalant is too many. Here are some facts about inhalant use that you might not know.
Helium isn’t harmless. You may have seen people inhale helium out of a balloon at a party to make their voices sound funny. But doing so can be dangerous, and in rare cases it can even cause sudden death. This happened recently to a 14-year-old in Oregon who inhaled helium out of a tank.
Inhalants can affect speech. Inhalants rob cells of oxygen, which can harm your brain. Using inhalants repeatedly can affect the hippocampus—a brain area that helps control memory—so that a person may lose the ability to learn new things or have a hard time carrying on a simple conversation.
Even if a person stops using, the damage may already be done. Some effects of inhalant use may never go away. These include hearing loss, limb spasms, and damage to the bone marrow and to the central nervous system (or brain).
Inhalants can be addictive. Although not very common, some people may become addicted to inhalants after long-term use.
And never forget about sudden sniffing death, which can result from irregular and rapid heart rhythms caused by sniffing inhalants. It can occur the first time or 100th time a person uses inhalants. Read other SBB posts that address inhalants.