Screening for inhalant abuse in children and adolescents

Screening for inhalant abuse in children and adolescents – Editorials

Michael T. Lynskey

In this issue of American Family Physician, Anderson and Loomis (1) provide a timely review of the prevalence and consequences of inhalant abuse in children and adolescents. Although this form of substance abuse poses serious health risks, it may be overlooked when family physicians discuss drug abuse prevention with young patients and their families. The potential ill effects of inhalant abuse include damage to cardiac, pulmonary, neurologic, gastrointestinal, hematologic, renal, and dermatologic systems.

Fortunately, inhalant use appears to lack some of the cachet that attracts adolescents and young adults to illicit drugs. This factor may explain the relatively low prevalence and frequency of inhalant use. Evidence from the Monitoring the Future survey (2) indicates that since 1995 there has been a small but steady decline in the one-year prevalence of inhalant use among school-aged children in the United States. The decline in use has been accompanied by an increase in the percentage of young people who disapprove of even occasional use of inhalants. In 2002, the percentage of 10th grade students who disapproved of trying inhalants (88.6 percent) was comparable to the percentages of those who disapproved of trying crack cocaine (88.0 percent), powder cocaine (86.4 percent), or heroin (89.2 percent), and higher than the percentages of those who disapproved of occasional use of marijuana (cannabis; 57.8 percent), LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide; 74.6 percent), or Ecstasy (MDMA; 77.4 percent). Data from this survey also indicate that many young people are aware of the dangers associated with inhalant use.

The article by Anderson and Loomis (1) highlights the possibility that inhalant abuse may act as a gateway to the use of other illicit drugs. This is an intriguing suggestion, given that some of the proposed mechanisms underlying the potential gateway effect of cannabis use relate to the extent to which access to cannabis also may increase access to other drugs. (3) However, these proposed explanations for the gateway effect of cannabis use are not easily applied to inhalants, which are widely and freely available. It may be that preexisting factors, such as personality and low income, precede the onset of inhalant use and explain the association between the abuse of inhalants and other substances.

Inhalants also differ from other gateway substances in lifetime prevalence of use, which is typically higher for alcohol and cannabis. As Anderson and Loomis (1) note, the prevalence of inhalant use (and abuse) is relatively low. However, given the serious acute effects of inhalant abuse, intensive efforts should focus on preventing the onset of use and, when indicated, encouraging cessation of use.

Given the myriad factors that are associated with the onset of substance abuse (i.e., the persons most at risk often are exposed to multiple disadvantages and dysfunctions (4)), preventive efforts should be multifaceted and should target multiple risk factors. Such broad preventive efforts must involve a host of institutions. Family physicians have a pivotal role in these preventive efforts: they are often the first point of contact, and they generally have well-established relationships with all family members. Furthermore, brief interventions by family physicians targeting alcohol and other drug problems have been shown to be effective. (5) Thus, family physicians should be aware of the dangers of inhalant abuse, should assess patients who may be at risk, and should be prepared to intervene to prevent the onset of inhalant use and to support and encourage cessation among abusers.


(1.) Anderson CE, Loomis GA. Recognition and prevention of inhalant

abuse. Am Fam Physician 2003; 68:869-74,876.

(2.) Johnston LD, O’Malley PM, Bachman JG. Monitoring the future: national survey results on drug use, 19752002. Volume I: Secondary school students. Bethesda, Md.: National Institute on Drug Abuse. NIH publication no. 035375. Retrieved July 24, 3003, from

(3.) Lynskey MT, Heath AC, Bucholz KK, Slutske WS, Madden PF, Nelson EC, et al. Escalation of drug use in early-onset cannabis users vs co-twin controls. JAMA 2003;289:427-33.

(4.) Hawkins JD, Catalano RF, Miller JY. Risk and protective factors for alcohol and other drug problems in adolescence and early adulthood: implications for substance abuse prevention. Psychol Bull 1992;112:64-105.

(5.) Levy S, Vaughan BL, Knight JR. Office-based intervention for adolescent substance abuse. Pediatr Clin North Am 2002;49:329-43.

Michael T. Lynskey, Ph.D., is assistant professor of psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis, and is associated with the Missouri Alcoholism Research Center.

Address correspondence to Michael T. Lynskey, Ph.D., Washington University School of Medicine, 40 N. Kingshighway, Ste. One, St. Louis, MO 63108 (e-mail: Reprints are not available from the author.

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