April 8, 2010— -- In 7th grade, Riley Foster, 16, of Indianapolis, Ind., would hide out in his garage after school and incessantly inhale gasoline for hours.
A one-time athlete, good student, and social teen, Riley became distant and withdrawn. Riley was addicted to huffing gasoline, but his parents did not know it.
"He didn't spend as much time with the family, he slept more, he was more argumentative and more irritated," said Riley's mother, Tammie Foster.
Riley first experimented with inhalants at age 12 when he sniffed a can of duster at a friend's house.
"It's just kind of like taking your head away from your body," he said. "The first time I ended up blacking out."
The more he inhaled, the more he liked it, he said. And the abuse quickly escalated.
"It is such a short high, so you can't pull yourself away from it," said Riley.
Foster said she did not know her son was using inhalants until she found Riley blacked out in the garage from an overdose.
"He was stumbling, his speech was extremely slurred, he was belligerent," Foster said. "I was scared to death that he was going to die."
Data released in March by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) indicate that 12-year-old kids are more likely to get high from common, legal household substances including aerosol computer cleaners, air fresheners, hair spray or shoe polish than use cigarettes or marijuana.
Riley isn't alone in experimenting with inhalant abuse, commonly known as huffing. National drug use surveys by SAMHSA between 2006 and 2008 indicate that nearly 7 percent of 12 year olds have used inhalants to get high.
National surveys indicate that nearly 22.3 million Americans have used inhalants at least once in their lives, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA). NIDA's Monitoring the Future study suggests that 15.7 percent of eighth-graders have ever used inhalants.
Inhalants: 'Easy, Cheap and Legal'
Sniffing is particularly popular in younger teens because it is so readily available, according to Aaron Whiteman, psychiatrist at the Fairbanks Treatment Center in Indianapolis, Ind. Markers, whip cream cans, glues, spray paint, air fresheners and butane cooking spray are just a few of the more than a thousand products that can be used to get high by sniffing.
"A sixth grader doesn't have the drug connections that maybe an older student might have," said Whiteman. "It's just the curiosity, the naïveté that comes from being that young."
"It's easy to get, cheap and legal," said Jennifer Caudle, an osteopathic family physician and director of the family medicine section of the Department of Internal Medicine at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore.
And death from inhaling, known as Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome, can occur even with a teen's first time sniffing. "It's when inhalants irritate the heart, speed it up and essentially will cause it to stop beating," said Whiteman.
Unfortunately, younger teens are also the most affected by using these toxic substances, said Dessa Bergen-Cico, assistant professor in the department of Health and Wellness at Syracuse University.
"The tissue and mucus membrane in the nose and throat of younger teens are very sensitive because they're growing," so when they inhale the substances not only are they more subject to the effects, but they may be more susceptible to long-term problems such as brain and organ damage, she said.
"Brain and memory are the most affected," Caudle said. "You have young people developing dementia, having hallucinations, walking into things -- not to mention feelings of agitation and anxiety and poor judgment."
Inhalants also produce withdrawal symptoms for users who try to quit, because the chemical high produced by sniffing is both physically and psychologically addictive.
Riley's near fatal overdose was a wakeup call that forced him to get help. It took Riley months of rehab, but he is now sober and knows his brush with death is what saved his life.
"Inhalant users that inhale daily, they don't last [a] year," he said. "[They] die before that."
How to Know If Your Child Is Huffing
"I'm not sure many parents actually know about sniffing," Caudle said. "It's been around for years, but there's not been enough awareness. People don't get how big of an issue this is."
So what are the signs that a teen is using inhalants?
According to Bergen-Cico, the two key markers are physical evidence of use and behavioral changes.
Physical evidence would include finding empty aerosol containers, items containing noxious fumes missing from the household, rags, plastic bags, or strange stains or odors on teen's clothing.
Behavioral signs of use, she said, often mimic alcohol intoxication with slurred speech, glassy eyes, poor muscle coordination, nausea, stumbling and/or dizziness. Mood changes are also common, and parents may notice that their children "aren't themselves," Caudle said.
Beyond awareness, it's important to address the root of these problems as well, Bergen-Cico said.
"When we see people younger and younger using things to get high on, the key issue is not just how to stop them but why are they looking to get high?" she said. "What are they trying to escape?"
Parents need to talk to their children about inhalant use when they talk about other drugs. If you suspect your children is using inhalants, seek professional support from your child's doctor.