Inhalation injury due to hydrocarbons can occur as a result of either accidental or intentional exposure. Inhalant abuse, the deliberate inhalation of hydrocarbons as a form of recreational drug use, has become a significant health issue affecting children. Epidemiologic data state that, among adolescents, inhalants are the second most widely used class of illicit drugs; more than 2 million children aged 12-17 years report using inhalants at least once in their lifetime. Death from intentional inhalation of hydrocarbon fumes is not uncommon and is usually due to sudden cardiac events or CNS depression. The recognition and treatment of inhalant abuse remain challenges for pediatricians and emergency physicians.
Deliberate inhalation of volatile hydrocarbons for their mood-altering effects is popular among adolescents. Their low cost, ready availability, and ease of use contribute to this problem. Volatile hydrocarbons are contained in glues, solvents, lighter fluid, gasoline, and paints. Most inhalants are composed of several compounds, and almost all pressurized aerosol products can be abused because the propellants are volatile hydrocarbons. Inhalation is most commonly achieved by sniffing, huffing, or bagging.
In young children, ingestion typically occurs as an exploratory behavior. The hydrocarbon is frequently unsecured or improperly stored in a drinking container. Since 2001, The US Consumer Product Safety Commission has required child-resistant packing of products that have low viscosity and contain greater than 10% hydrocarbon by weight.
The majority of intoxication reports of hydrocarbons are due to inhalation or ingestion, but a few case reports have described intravenous ingestion of gasoline for suicide.