Driver Education: How Drugs Affect Driving – Inhalants

Most parents worry that their teens will get involved in illegal drugs, but some parents are unaware of one of the main determinants of whether teens will experiment with drugs – availability. Because they are legal, easily accessible household products, inhalants are one of the most commonly abused drug categories. According to the 2007 Partnership Attitude Tracking Study, 4.6 million teens have tried inhalants. After alcohol, cigarettes, and marijuana, inhalants are the most frequently-used drug by teens. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, inhalants are one of the first substances abused by children. Though addiction is rare, inhalants can act as a gateway drug when they are replaced with other accessible substances as children age and chase the next high.

Inhalants include solvents, such as paint thinner, gasoline, and glue; gases, such as butane, propane, and nitrous oxide; and aerosol propellants. Experimentation could occur with any household product containing chemicals – spray paint, cleaning products, felt-tip marker fluid, vegetable oil spray, correction fluid. Inhalants are “sniffed” from an open container or “huffed” from a rag soaked in the substance and held to the face. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, most inhalants cause a quick high similar to alcohol intoxication. The intoxication from inhalants typically only lasts a few minutes, so users often inhale repeatedly over a period of several hours, increasing the risk of adverse effects.

Effects of inhalants include:

  • stimulation
  • loss of inhibition
  • slurred speech
  • loss of motor coordination
  • headache
  • nausea or vomiting
  • wheezing
  • loss of sensation
  • loss of consciousness
  • muscle cramps and weakness
  • memory impairment
  • weight loss
  • depression
  • damage to the cardiovascular and nervous systems
  • sudden death, even with first-time use

Because abuse of inhalants often occurs at a friend’s house or in out-of-the-way places such as in empty parking lots and on dead-end streets, and because driving is viewed as a fun activity by teens, the danger of inhalants can be compounded when teens use inhalants and drive. The intoxication caused by inhalants can cause the same problems as driving under the influence of alcohol – impaired judgment and decision-making, risky driving behavior, and poor motor coordination.

Ensuring that teens don’t experiment with inhalants requires a high degree of vigilance on the part of the parent. Inhalants are cheap, legal and easy to obtain, often from the teen’s own home. Teens are often not aware of the risk of using inhalants, reasoning that they are harmless household products and that they are only going to be used occasionally. In fact, the 2007 Partnership Attitude Tracking Study showed that from 2001 to 2005, the number of teens who perceived inhalant use as risky decreased significantly.

Parents shouldn’t assume that if they don’t mention inhalants, it won’t occur to teens to use them. At any given time, a teen can be presented with the idea by a friend. In fact, since inhalants are often the first drug used by children, they should be one of the first drug categories parents discuss. Make sure teens know that even common household goods, such as cleaning products, can be harmful – show them the warnings on the labels about using them in well-ventilated areas, and ask them to explain how they think intentionally inhaling the fumes could harm someone. Talk about the risk of sudden death from sniffing or huffing, and ask teens to talk about how they would feel if they were with a friend who died from inhalant abuse. Opportunities for reinforcing the risks of inhalant abuse are everywhere – in driver training courses, in health education classes, in newspaper articles, and on television shows.

Restricting the availability of popular substances is also important. Clean out the garage and properly dispose of leftover chemical products. Those that must be kept should be locked in a cabinet or shed. Parents may wish to help teens avoid temptation by limiting or banning aerosol spray products such as deodorants, hairspray, fabric protector, and whipped cream. Keep a close watch on teens’ bedrooms and recreational areas for empty containers or smelly rags, especially in odd places, like under a bed or chair or in the back of a closet. Parents who suspect inhalant abuse must take action immediately.