Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome Kills With One Puff

With getting high off inhalants, one sniff is all it takes to cut a life short.

March 10, 2010, 11:22 AM

March 11, 2010— -- At age 12, most kids are concerned with finding a ride to the movies and making it through middle school. Ashley Upchurch was younger -- 11 -- when she became addicted to inhaling air dusters as a way to get high.

"It was a cheap high, it was instant, and it was intense," Upchurch, now 17 and sober for over two years, said today in a Washington D.C. seminar about the danger inhalants pose to children.

New data released today by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) indicates 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.

I used it with other "good kids," Upchurch said. "We used inhalants everywhere. At home, school, in cars and even in public."

Upchurch isn't alone in experimenting with inhalant abuse, commonly known as huffing. National drug use surveys by SAMHSA between 2006 and 2008 indicate that just under 7 percent of 12 year olds have used inhalants to get high.

Freon found in air conditioners was the inhalant of choice for Amber Suri Talley, a 17-year old from Lexington, N.C.

She had been using for approximately six months when one hit stopped her heart -- she was later found dead from cardiac arrest and asphyxiation, the garbage bag used to keep in the fumes still covering her face.

This sudden and tragic death, known as Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome, can occur even with a teen's first time sniffing.

"I didn't know she was sniffing until after. ... We knew something was up, but we couldn't pinpoint it," Amber's father, Kevin Talley, said. "The effects of it are so different from any other drug you've seen."

"Sniffing" toxic substances to get high has become a surprisingly common pastime among young teens, though this practice isn't even on the radar for most parents.

Since Amber died in February 2009, Talley has become an advocate for making parents more aware of the dangers of sniffing and he is scheduled to share Amber's story at the event today.

"We're hoping [with this conference] to make people more aware of the signs to look for, and to get safety caps put on air conditioners. Kids today are getting creative, they're not using the traditional drug outlet," Talley said.

"Raising awareness is really important because people don't know just how common inhalant abuse is among young people, it's right up there with marijuana," 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.

"It's easy to get, cheap and legal," she said, and as many kids and parents fail to realize, potentially deadly.

A Thousand Ways to Get High

One in five students in the United States has used an inhalant to get high by the time he or she reaches eighth grade, according to the NIPC.

Sniffing is particularly popular in younger teens because it is so readily available. 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.

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, and possibly cancer, she said.

Other long-term effects of huffing include damage to the heart, kidney, brain, liver and other organs.

"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.

What's more, sniffing can be a "gateway drug" for teens. In a 2007 study by SAMHSA, researchers found that 17 percent of teens who started using drugs in the last year reported that inhalants were the first drug they started using.

In 2007, nearly 1 million teens admitted to using inhalants in the last year and 100,000 of these would qualify as addicted to or abusing inhalants, according to SAMHSA's data.

Kevin Talley and his wife, Deborah, knew something was up with their daughter but never suspected she was using inhalants, he said. Even an ear, nose and throat doctor they took her to two weeks before her death couldn't pinpoint why Amber's throat was so inflamed and why she was acting so strange.

"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.

In Amber's case, Talley said she would lose her temper at the drop of a hat, had glassy eyes and her clothing had a strange, pungent smell -- all signs that would have pointed to sniffing had the Talleys known to look for them.

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?"