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Part one of a two-part series on easily accessed substances frequently abused by teens and young adults.

Most of us can probably list many of the major controlled substances and other intoxicants that are legally regulated.  We know that various of these substances have surged in popularity at different times—LSD in the 60’s, cocaine in the 80’s, and methamphetamines in the 90’s and 00’s—and that both alcohol and marijuana have been widely abused by young people for decades.   But while parents, teachers, and law enforcement officers focus their attention on illegal drugs and alcohol, young people are finding ways to get high that, despite being legal, may pose risks equal to or greater than those of illegal drugs and alcohol.

Many items easily accessed in most households or legally acquired online, at convenience stores, or in head shops, are now used by adolescents and young adults seeking a replacement for or complement to illegal drug or alcohol use.  This is because these household items and so-called “designer drugs” are often easier to gain access to and/or use undetected.  Although the legal risks of using these household items and designer drugs  are lower, the health risks should be considered equal to or greater than those of illegal drugs or alcohol.

Addiction, overdose, poisoning, brain and organ damage, and death can result from the abuse of these items as intoxicants.  Unlike better-known, regulated substances, the health risks and dosage implications of these chemicals are not well understood, increasing the risk of overdosing, negative medication interactions, and other unintended consequences.  In addition, less treatment knowledge is available for these substances when their abuse escalates to addiction or overdose.

Since thousands upon thousands of everyday substances can, in adequate dosages, cause an altered mental, emotional, or physical state, it’s impossible to catalogue all of them.   It’s also impossible for parents or law enforcement to entirely stay ahead of, monitor, or regulate the use of these dangerous alternatives to illegal drugs and alcohol.  Nonetheless, parents and others concerned with the safety of young people do well to understand trends in the use of legal and easily accessed intoxicants.  Information can help parents and others detect dangerous substance abuse and, just as importantly, engage their teen with accurate information and informed concern.

Intoxicating Household Items

Following is a list of intoxicating household items often used by teens as a substitute or complement to illegal drugs or alcohol. This is by no means a comprehensive list and should be viewed only as a set of examples of the thousands of items teens may use to get high.

  • Aerosol products and other inhalants: “Huffing” involves the inhalation of noxious household substances.  Glue or paint or other chemicals may be placed in a baggie which is then placed over the mouth and breathed from.  Near-empty whipped cream canisters or other aerosol products may be inhaled directly or by using a baggie.  Other items, such as permanent markers gasoline, or nail polish, maybe sniffed to the point of intoxication as well.  All of these substances are poisons that can cause brain damage, organ failure, and death.  Since the dosage is impossible to accurately regulate, this form of substance abuse may be likened to a form of deadly roulette.
  • Parent or friend’s medication: Teens may use their parent’s or friend’s prescription medications, either with or without regard to its intended use.  Dosage instructions are often increased to ensure an intoxicating effect, increasing the risk of overdose or toxicity.  Teen abusers typically do not take these medications with any understanding of potential drug-interaction issues and may take addictive substances in a manner that increases the likelihood of dependence.
  • Teen’s own medication: Many teens learn to use their prescribed medications—especially psychoactive medications—in a manner inconsistent with their physician’s instructions.  Often this involves cheeking medication so that it may be saved up over time and taken in a larger than prescribed dose.  Teen abusers of prescribed medication may also take their medication in a manner that speeds its delivery to the bloodstream—such as smoking it or chopping it into a fine powder and snorting it.  This can make an otherwise safe medication addictive, toxic, and deadly.
  • Spices and Plants: Nutmeg, mace, and other common spices and food items may also be consumed (drunk as a tea, smoked, eaten, or snorted) in quantities that cause an intoxicating effect.  Some of these substances have enough toxicity to cause severe side effects that can either act as a deterrent to future use or cause serious physical harm.  Certain types of wild lettuce, the seeds of morning glory plants, and many other common floras are also used by teens to get high.  Most of these substances can create dangerous or deadly toxicity when consumed in the wrong quantity. Some are treated with dangerous pesticides.
  • Cold medicine:  Cold medicines with dextromethorphan hydrobromide have surged in popularity as a preferred intoxicant among American teens.  These medications are easily accessed in home medicine chests and are consumed in excessive quantities to produce a euphoric and sometimes hallucinogenic effect.  Overdosing on these medications can lead to addiction, psychotic reactions, and death.