Drug use is a serious public health issue for adults across the globe. However, use and abuse of illicit substances, such as cocaine and marijuana, have begun to infiltrate the youth. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that in 2010, nine percent of people aged 12 and older had used illicit drugs. Homeless youth, in particular, can get out of hand with these substances.

A new study, comparing 27 other studies of drug use in homeless children, indicates that a homeless child is 60 percent more likely to use drugs in his or her lifetime, compared to a non-homeless child. Studies came from 14 different countries, including Brazil and Nigeria, and reported that 47 percent of homeless children use inhalants more than other types of drugs. And, as a result of their drug use, homeless children face seriously adverse mental and physical health issues.

Inhalants are common household items with caustic ingredients in them. Overexposure by inhaling them creates a high as other drugs do, but these inhalants are extremely harmful, as the contained chemicals are not meant for contact with lung tissues at such high concentration. These items include white out, empty aerosol cans, and acetone-based nail polish remover

Along with the astounding use of inhalants, 44 percent of homeless children reported tobacco and alcohol use, 43 percent reported intravenous drug use, 31 percent reported marijuana use, and 16 percent reported the use of cocaine.

But how do they pick up these habits?

Homeless children, often called "street children," tend to become independent at a very young age. Many of them come from poor families who cannot afford to support them, and thus, many of these children work on the streets of their city to support themselves and their family. However, lacking supervision, guidance, and strong familial ties, these children are bound to make ill-informed decisions.

After asking the children about decisions they had made, researchers found that drug use and soliciting money for sex were most prominent. Thirty percent of the male children studied in Pakistan reported that they exchanged sex for drugs, and 71 percent of those exchanges were with strangers. Researchers found that children on drugs were four times more likely to exchange sex for drugs, food, shelter, or money. In Brazil, 34 percent of these sexual exchanges were unprotected. In India, half of all the children who said they were sexually active admitted they were forced into performing sexual acts. This prominence of unprotected sex and rape among street children also increased their likelihood for developing human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and other sexually transmitted infections (STI).

Living on the street and using drugs take a toll on the health of these children. Many of them had symptoms of an STI, like painful urination and genital sores or irritation. Their intravenous drug use also made them more likely to contract HIV or have other homeless friends with the deadly virus.

Moreover, many children admitted that their mental health issues were a reason for altering their consciousness with illicit substances. A majority suffered depression that lasted more than two weeks at a time. Among their most commonly admitted reasons for drug use were to give into with peer pressure, to feel confident or less scared, to forget issues they were having, and to feel pleasure.

In the end, the altered mental and physical health of homeless children is as much of a public health issue as the use of illicit drugs in the rest of the population. What is most shocking about this study is that its information spans the globe: all around the world, children are suffering. The researchers have therefore identified a serious issue in a large demographic and hope that their findings will awaken policymakers, communities, and other researchers to help these children avoid drug use as well as homelessness.

Source: Embleton L, Mwangi A, Vreeman R, Ayuku D, Braitstein P. The epidemiology of substance use among street children in resource-constrained settings: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Addiction. 2013.