The positive psychological effects of drug and alcohol use are well-known and have been well-researched.
However, what is probably not so widely appreciated is the number of everyday household items that possess chemicals that can elicit similar positive psychological feelings and sensations to alcohol and drugs.
Adolescents are at a stage in their development where they are susceptible to social influences as they are motivated by the need to feel connected to others and to be seen as popular and brave enough to seek new experiences that can connect them to others.
Why the need to get high?
Several reasons could explain why teenagers possess the need to engage in seeking out products that could give them a high, including:
- Popularity/connection with others.
- Looking for alternative experiences and accessing a different state of consciousness and having new sensory experiences (hallucinations).
- Experience feelings of pleasure and excitement / boost mood.
- Escape reality. (3)
Why everyday items?
Everyday items/substances are not so expensive compared with drugs and alcohol, both of which tend to be significantly more expensive than the alternative household products they can experiment with.
Many everyday items are easily accessible to teenagers and can be purchased in shops without them needing to show ID, or they can be found around the house in the kitchen, bathroom, and garage.
Many teenagers tend to research such topics on the internet whether it is tips from other people or from their own understanding of scientific principles about the chemicals that can generate a “high”. (3)
The chemical makeup of substances that cause a high
Psychoactive chemicals can change many aspects of our physical and mental functioning, including perception, mood and feelings which can affect the way we behave.
To achieve this the chemicals present in psychoactive substances interact with our brain biology and activate certain chemical processes that create new sensations for us.
Most psychoactive substances will tend to trigger activity in the dopamine/reward pathway in the brain which is associated with generating feelings of high pleasure and euphoria.
Because of this, substances that can cause these are highly likely to be abused as users seek to re-experience the positive feelings they obtained the first time they used the item/substance. (1,3)
Household products that can cause a high
There are countless household products that can cause a high but some of the common ones include:
Motion sickness tablets – Dimenhydrinate (Dramamine)
This is an over-the-counter product and a common feature in many household medicine cabinets throughout the country.
Dimenhydrinate (Dramamine) is used to treat symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and dizziness which some people can experience when predominantly travelling by car or sea.
Dimenhydrinate contains chemical properties that can produce mind and mood-altering experiences if taken in higher doses as they have a hallucinogenic effect as well as producing euphoric feelings (high).
It is therefore a popular choice of alternative for teenagers who are seeking to gain new experiences. Dimenhydrinate is an antihistamine drug that and taking the drug may lead to drowsiness and decreased psychological alertness.
How much needs to be taken to experience its effects?
To experience its hallucinogenic effects teenagers need to aim to take roughly 1000 milligrams, however, it has been reported that when combined with alcohol it can elicit a sedative effect which can be very dangerous and can lead to unpredictable side effects which may require medical treatment.
Dimenhydrinate also has an anxiety-reducing effect.
Alternatively, many people seek to use Dimenhydrinate (Dramamine) recreationally to reduce their anxiety due to its soothing and relaxing effect (which is a mistake as it is not designed for this purpose).
This makes it a desirable substance for anyone who suffers from anxiety and is afraid or embarrassed to go to their GP.
It produces a very high sensation when the amount taken is above the recommended level and is accompanied by excitement, hallucinations, loss of coordination and delirium (confusion).
Many kitchens contain nutmeg in their spice rack, with many parents probably unaware of its potential for abuse by teenagers seeking new thrills and experiencing “highs”.
Nutmeg possesses a sweet taste and is known for its warm flavour. It tends to be used in baking and for sauces and is also a main constituent of the drink eggnog. (10,12)
The origins of nutmeg can be traced to the Myristica fragrans tree which is commonly found in the Banda Islands which is one of several islands in and around Indonesia.
Nutmeg contains myristicin.
The main active ingredient that is chiefly responsible for its sort-after effects is myristicin which acts on the central nervous system and increases the presence and release of norepinephrine which will result in the user experiencing hallucinations and euphoric feelings.
This is because myristicin is chemically similar to the illicit amphetamine-based drug MDMA. (9,10,11)
As well as this many people who have taken nutmeg have reported that their perception of time and space is altered, and they feel detached from reality. The kinaesthetic system is also affected as users experience being separated from their arms and legs.
10 grammes of nutmeg can produce the desired effect
Scientists investigating the effects of nutmeg have concluded that consuming 10 grammes and above of nutmeg is usually enough to experience its desirable effects.
However, there are negative effects as well if a person consumes too much myristicin as there are when ingesting substances that produce psychoactive effects, which include: (9)
- Feeling dizzy.
- Dry mouth.
- Feeling confused.
- Increased risk of seizures.
- Respiratory, cardiovascular and digestive issues. (11)
Inhalants – Glue/adhesives
Teenagers have for decades turned to inhalants to attempt to gain a positive high, and a popular choice has been glue or various adhesives.
Most inhalants have the added benefit for teenage experimental substance users of entering the bloodstream quickly which leads to them taking effect rapidly.
There have been various practices with glue to try and enhance the high that they will experience. For example, in a process known as “bagging,” recreational users fill a bag with glue and breathe in and out of the bag several times. (5,8)
Glue contains a psychoactive chemical called toluene
Glue contains a chemical called toluene which generates its main psychoactive effect as it has the potential to trigger the dopamine (reward pathway) mechanism in our brain which is responsible for the release of chemicals that lead to pleasurable feelings such as excitement and euphoria. (5)
Toluene has been reported as eliciting a positive high which is comparable to high alcohol intake. If toluene is consumed at higher doses then users can experience hallucinations and delusions about who they are and what they are capable of and may become disorientated.
This makes it a dangerous substance to start using as it is potentially very addictive and teenagers can develop a dependence on glue quite quickly if they use it regularly to achieve a high.
Inhalants – Whipped cream cans
Another popular route to achieving a high is through inhaling the contents of whipped cream cans which contain compressed gas which is capable of creating a short-term buzz when inhaled.
These canisters contain nitrous oxide which is a gas that dentists and doctors have been using for years to anaesthetize their patients as it is a gas that does send people to sleep.
Nitrous oxide is also known as laughing gas and inhaling the content of this canister will make you feel drowsy, reduce pain, and help to achieve a state of euphoria. (3,8)
However, nitrous oxide, if misused can also:
- Cause people to vomit.
- Lead to unconsciousness.
- Lower oxygen levels.
- Problems with motor control.
- Feelings of nausea.
- Feeling dizzy and lightheaded.
- A deterioration in muscle strength.
- Respiratory problems.
- Restrict oxygen supply to the brain and cardiovascular system.
- Any damage done is likely to be permanent.
DSM5 – Inhalant use disorder
Because inhalant use is so common and adolescents have been experimenting with substance inhalation for a long time, and at such high rates DSM5 has now introduced the condition Inhalant Use Disorder to its manual. (1)
The criteria in DSM5 state that if a person shows two or more of the following observable symptoms, then it is likely they are intoxicated as a result of inhalant use.
These are the signs that parents should watch out for as a cause for concern:
- Becoming dizzy.
- Eye twitching, involuntary movements.
- Become uncoordinated and clumsy.
- Speech may become slurred.
- Tiredness and lethargy.
- Unsteady gait.
- Reflexes become slower.
- A decline in the speed of physical and mental activity.
- Tremors may become apparent.
- A decline in muscle strength.
- Vision becomes blurred.
- Enter a highly euphoric state.
- There’s a danger of entering a coma. (5,8)
Another household item that could appeal to teenagers is cough syrup. Many cough syrups contain a key active ingredient called Dextromethorphan (DXM) which suppresses activity in the region of the brain that controls and stimulates the coughing process.
DXM is also capable of eliciting many positive experiences that would appeal to experimenting teenage recreational users seeking to take advantage of its psychoactive properties to gain heightened experiences.
These experiences include hallucinations, heightened sensory and perceptual experiences and achieving a state of euphoria by taking the syrup in higher quantities than is recommended. (4)
DXM in cough syrup affects our cognition.
There is a danger that DXM can affect many of our cognitive processes including our judgement and the accuracy of our decision-making.
So, anyone taking DXM should be wary that their ability to drive a car or bike or operate any kind of technical machinery may be severely hampered if they have taken a high dose of DXM.
The negative symptoms of DXM can be exacerbated when combined with alcohol and dampen the central nervous system leading to extreme drowsiness and dizziness. (4)
When taken in high doses DXM can lead to side effects such as:
- Panic attacks
- Feelings of paranoia
- High blood pressure
- An increased risk of having a seizure.
- Psychotic symptoms
Bathroom items such as mouthwash and hand sanitiser contain high amounts of alcohol and so are viewed as cheaper alternatives to alcohol that are sold in pubs and supermarkets.
This is because it is generally cheaper for teenagers to buy these products and it is also easier for them to obtain these products if they are not yet old enough to buy alcohol in pubs and shops.
Analysis of these products reveals that they may contain as much as 60% alcohol. This is a dangerously high amount as most spirits people buy for consumption have a limit of 40% proof, so the alcohol content in these bathroom items is 50% stronger.
People who become addicted to alcohol also seek out such products as their high alcohol content would alleviate their withdrawal symptoms. (2,7)
There are usually three different types of alcohol found in hand sanitiser:
- Ethanol – Bearing in mind that the alcohol that is consumed recreationally in bars and restaurants is ethanol-based alcohol anyone who drinks hand sanitiser containing isopropanol and methanol is putting themselves in grave danger as they are highly toxic substances that can do serious physical harm to people’s internal biology and key organs. (2,7)
- Methanol is a form of alcohol used to make chemicals such as fuel, solvents and pesticides.
- Isopropanol is used in after-shave lotions, disinfectants and as a solvent in fuel tanks.
Even consuming small amounts of these chemicals can make someone unwell and prolonged use will lead to:
- Excessive damage to the central nervous system, destroys nerves and cells throughout the entire body.
- Blindness and problems with sight.
- Damage to the respiratory system.
Teenagers seeking to gain new experiences may attempt to experiment with these products as alcohol is known to:
- Cause a positive feeling or buzz.
- Relax people.
- Facilitate social interaction.
To feel the alcohol-like effects of these products teenagers will need to consume so much of the product that they would be in danger of ingesting high amounts of the other added chemicals in these products that are highly toxic and harmful. (2,7)
For example, frequent heavy intake of hand sanitiser can lead to:
- Alcohol poisoning.
- Brain seizures.
- Fatigue and muscle weakness.
- Loss of sight.
- Acidosis, which causes complications to heart rate and affects a person’s breathing rate
However, it is important to realise that everyday items are probably even more dangerous bearing in mind that they are designed for specific uses around the house.
These uses include cooking, cleaning, fixing and repairing objects, storing chemicals and products or treating an ailment and are therefore not meant to be ingested into the body.
These products are not designed for human consumption
Obviously, it’s quite safe to use hand sanitiser to wash your hands but not to drink it as it contains chemicals that weren’t meant to be absorbed into the stomach.
The chemicals in such products need to be powerful for them to produce the effect that they were specifically designed for whether it is cleaning surfaces and killing bacteria, sticking objects together or storing food items.
Long-term use could have devastating consequences
Consuming even a small amount of any household item can prove to be harmful but the amount a person seeking a “high” needs to consume means that they will cause themselves a great deal of physical harm in chasing the high. Particularly if this carries on over the long term.
Continued use can lead to physical and psychological dependence and addiction
The chemicals in these everyday items are very harmful to the human body if taken in high amounts over the long term as just like alcohol, cocaine, cannabis and heroin any drug that alters mood and reality to a significant degree is likely to be a substance of abuse.
Such items will therefore potentially possess addictive properties which users will need specialist treatment to recover from.
Anyone taking substances in the inhalant category and myristicin (nutmeg) is less likely to become physically dependent on the substances.
However, there is a concern that teenage experimenters will become psychologically addicted to the positive feelings they experience when ingesting the household item as well as the thrill of trying out a new item (substance) which may in itself produce a “buzz” (high).
Psychological addiction is challenging to overcome so intense therapy may be required to help teenagers overcome their need for experiencing a “high” and would also prevent them from doing severe physical harm to themselves.
How will I know if my behaviour has gotten out of control?
If several of the points below apply to you then it is likely you need to seek professional support to help you change your behaviour:
- If you frequently ingest/experiment with different household items.
- Your use of the item escalates, this may include taking more of the same item/product or experimenting with other items as well.
- You want to stop but are unable to (a loss of control).
- You notice changes to your physical and mental functioning.
- You become unwell.
- You are unable to concentrate at school or college.
- You stop engaging in activities you previously enjoyed.
- You alienate yourself from close friends.
Seeking specialist help
If you feel that your use of household items has gotten out of control and harmed your physical health and mental health then visit your GP at the earliest opportunity to address this before it your health is seriously impacted.
Your GP will refer you to the care of specialist substance misuse practitioners who are experienced in helping patients overcome substance abuse of any kind.
There are now several established treatment programmes available to treat people who have been excessively consuming household items with psychoactive and toxic properties and need to stop.
(1) Black, D., Grant, J. (2013) DSM5 Guidebook: The Essential Companion to Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition. APP. London.
(2) British Medical Journal (2022) Swallowing alcohol-based hand sanitiser can kill, warns analysis of coroners’ report. available@Swallowing alcohol-based hand sanitiser can kill, warns analysis of coroners’ reports | BMJ
(3) Gossop, J. (2005) Multiple Substance Misuse and Multiple Dependencies in (ed) Dual Diagnosis and Psychiatric Treatment: Substance Misuse and Comorbid Disorders. Marcel Dekker. New York.
(4) Mutschler, J. et al (2010) Dextromethorphan Withdrawal and Dependence Syndrome. Available@Dextromethorphan Withdrawal and Dependence Syndrome – PMC (nih.gov)
(5) National Institute on Drug Abuse (2022) What are inhalants? available@Inhalants DrugFacts | National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) (nih.gov)
(6) National Institute on drug abuse (2022) Synthetic Cathinones (Bath salts): Drug Facts. availableSynthetic Cathinones (“Bath Salts”) DrugFacts | National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) (nih.gov)
(7) Pourmand, A. et al (2021) Hand Sanitizer Intoxication in the Emergency Department. Cureus. Available@ Hand Sanitizer Intoxication in the Emergency Department – PMC (nih.gov)
(8) SAMSHA (2022) Understanding adolescent inhalant use. available@Understanding Adolescent Inhalant Use (samhsa.gov)
(9) Sangalli, B., Chiang, W. (2000) Toxicology of Nutmeg use. available@Toxicology of nutmeg abuse – PubMed (nih.gov)
(10) Science Direct (2022) Nutmeg, available@ Nutmeg – an overview | ScienceDirect Topics
(11) Seneme, E. et al (2021) Pharmacological and Therapeutic Potential of Myristican: A Literature Review. Molecules. 2021 Oct; 26(19). available@Pharmacological and Therapeutic Potential of Myristicin: A Literature Review – PMC (nih.gov)
(12) United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (2022) The use of Nutmeg as a psychotropic agent. available@UNODC – Bulletin on Narcotics – 1966 Issue 4 – 002