Whippets are small canisters of nitrous oxide used at soda fountains to make whipped cream. They have been incorporated into various products, such as balloon inflators, ''carburetor pipes,'' and other drug paraphernalia (see Nitrous Oxide, above).

(SEE ALSO: Complications; Ethnicity and Drugs; High School Senior Survey; Inhalants: Extent of Use and Complications)

Ronald W. Wood

INHALANTS: EXTENT OF USE AND COMPLICATIONS About 12 1/2 million ADOLESCENTS in this country say that they have sniffed INHALANTS—usually volatile solvents such as spray paint, glue, or cigarette lighter fluid—at least once in their lives, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) in its 1997 MONITORING THE FUTURE study, a national survey of 8th-, 10th-, and 12th-grade students (also called the HIGH SCHOOL SENIOR Survey). In fact, results from a number of surveys suggest that among children under 18, the level of use of inhalants is comparable to that of stimulants and is exceeded only by the level of use of Marijuana, Alcohol, and Cigarettes.

The abuse of inhalants, which include a broad array of cheap and easily obtainable household products, is frequently viewed by the public as a relatively harmless habit and not in the same high-risk category as drugs such as alcohol, COCAINE, and HEROIN. Some people tend to view inhalant "sniffing," "snorting," "bagging" (when fumes are inhaled from a plastic bag), or "huffing" (when an inhalant-soaked rag is stuffed in the mouth) as a kind of childish fad to be equated with youthful experiments with cigarettes. But inhalant abuse is deadly serious. Sniffing volatile solvents, which include most inhalants, can cause severe damage to the brain and nervous system. By starving the body of oxygen or forcing the heart to beat more rapidly and erratically, inhalants have killed sniffers, most of whom are adolescents.

The difficulty people face in recognizing the scope and magnitude of the problem lies in the dearth of documenting information. Survey data on the prevalence of inhalant abuse are difficult to obtain for a number of reasons—and what information does exist may underemphasize the severity of the situation. No one knows how many adolescents and young people die each year from inhalant abuse, in part because medical examiners often attribute deaths from inhalant abuse to heart problems, suffocation, SUICIDE, or ACCIDENTS. What is more, no national system exists for gathering data on the extent of inhalant-related injuries, although medical journals have described the situation as serious. As serious as the situation may be, some researchers warn that doctors and emergency medical personnel are not adequately trained to recognize and report symptoms of inhalant abuse.

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