A Strange Addiction

The girl’s mother sounded really upset. “She shuts herself up in her room and sniffs a cloth soaked in petrol. I don’t understand it at all,” she said. “Strange behaviour… How did it start,” asked the doctor. Apparently innocently enough, as it turned out, smelling the rags discarded by her mother after cleaning the petrol spills from the generator. The girl looked tired, despondent and disoriented. She twitched and dithered, anxiously eyeing the door, hoping to escape, probably to get her next “fix”.

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…………IInhalant abuse can occur with common household items such as permanent markers, adhesives, moth balls or shoe polish

Further questioning revealed that the girl’s academic performance had also deteriorated in the last few months. She suffered from an addiction to petrol fumes, a recognised form of inhalant abuse. This is defined as the intentional inhalation of any volatile substance for the purpose of achieving an altered mental state, a “high”.

Inhalants are easily addictive. Abuse was first documented among children in slums and ghettos in Africa. Now this addiction is found all over the world, among all ethnic and socioeconomic groups. It can start in elementary school and continue throughout adolescence. The extent of the problem is under reported as it often goes unrecognised. Addiction to inhalants is easy as unlike alcohol, marijuana, crack, heroin and other hard core “recreational” drugs these are cheap, plentiful, appear innocent and can be easily purchased without arousing suspicion.

In addition to petrol, any product containing volatile chemicals like acetone, butane, chlorinated hydrocarbons, fluorocarbons, propane and toluene can be addictive. These chemicals are found in common household products such as permanent markers, adhesive, glue, paint thinner, shoe polish, room fresheners and correction fluids. There are several innovative ways of inhaling fumes like “sniffing” or “snorting” from containers. Alternatively, aerosols are sometimes sprayed directly into the nose or mouth. Kids can “huff” these products by soaking rags in inhalants and then pressing the damp cloth to the mouth. Fumes can also be inhaled from the products poured into plastic bags. Inhalants can be fatal as they can cause palpitations and irregular heart beats. They can also cause suffocation, especially when inhaled from plastic bags.

Parents may not be aware that their child is addicted to inhalants. They may only note inexplicably bizarre behaviour like euphoria, drowsiness, giddiness, loss of coordination, slurred speech, irritation and agitation.

Petrol, including the unleaded variety, contains a significant amount of lead. In addition to nerve and brain damage, petrol sniffers can develop symptoms of lead poisoning. In the long term, the lead and volatile hydrocarbons can damage the fat (myelin) lining of the brain and nerves. The gait then becomes abnormal and unsteady. Visual recognition, attention, memory and learning are affected. Academic performance, too, deteriorates. Physical activity and sports become curtailed as there is poor coordination and tremor. These neurological changes increase the reaction time, thus making these young people accident prone.

Children who are addicted have additional physical and psychological problems. They may be depressed, fatigued (because of anaemia) and have subnormal hearing and vision. The kidneys may be damaged and may eventually fail. Once the habit is curtailed there is some improvement, but much of the neurological damage is permanent. Inhalant abuse must be stopped as soon as it is spotted. This can result in withdrawal symptoms, such as sleep disturbances, irritability, nausea, vomiting, sweating, rapid heartbeat, hallucinations or delusions.

Addiction can occur to many things — like food, tobacco, alcohol, drugs, sleeping tablets, painkillers, cough mixtures or even sex. Addiction occurs when there is a combination of genetic and environmental factors. In other words, it occurs when a person with such genetic makeup — which predisposes him or her to addiction — is brought up in a family where motive and opportunity are aplenty.

Sometimes, the elders in the family may be to blame.
The child may observe a lack of control in his or her parents’ lifestyle. One or both of them may consistently overeat, be overweight and exhibit no restraint. There may be smoking, use of snuff or chewing tobacco. Alcohol may be misused with uncontrolled daily consumption or binge drinking.

To help addicted children, parents have to look within as their activities are often emulated by children blindly. They have to stop their addictions. At the same time, they must closely supervise and keep a watch on the child. Disappearing into a room, under the staircase or the terrace is a danger signal. They have to provide supervised activities to occupy the child from morning till night. Physical activity must be encouraged, even if there are pressures of homework, for 40 minutes a day. Yoga and training in the martial arts are also helpful as they teach mental discipline.

The road back to normalcy is long, winding, hard and full of pitfalls with plenty of opportunities for relapse. It is only with the help of supportive and dedicated family and friends that success can be achieved.

Sources:The Telegraph (Kolkata, India)

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