Substance Abuse Huffing

Inhalant use, or “huffing,” describes the abuse of chemical inhalants to achieve feelings of intoxication, euphoria and other symptoms. Literally thousands of medical, commercial and household products can be used as inhalants. Huffing leads to addiction, permanent brain and organ damage and sudden death.

Inhalants and Children

Huffing and inhalant use are common types of abuse. Approximately seventeen million Americans have abused inhalants at least once in their lives. Inhalant use is especially common among young children; by eighth grade one in five children has experimented with huffing at least once.

Inhalants are the fourth most commonly abused substances used by children in eighth to twelfth grade, after alcohol, cigarettes and marijuana. Inhalants are one of the few substances younger children abuse more than older children. However, this may indicate that students with huffing problems may have dropped out of school between eighth and twelfth grade.

Although inhalant use is most common in children, chronic abuse of inhalants can follow an individual into adulthood and impair career, social functioning and relationships. Long-term abuse of inhalants appears to be most common among males. Other factors associated with inhalant abuse include poverty, child abuse, poor school grades and dropping out of school.

Types of Inhalants

Most abused inhalants are found in perfectly legal products, many of which are readily available in the average household. Abused inhalants can be broadly divided into four categories: volatile solvents, gases, nitrates and aerosols. Each of these categories affect the central nervous system:

Type Source Examples
Volatile Solvents any liquid that vaporizes at room temperature
  • correcting fluid
  • degreasers
  • dry cleaning fluid
  • felt tip markers
  • gasoline
  • glue
  • paint remover
  • paint thinner.
Aerosols sprays containing propellants
  • deodorant
  • fabric protector spray
  • hair spray
  • spray paint
  • vegetable oil cooking spray.
Gases medical, industrial and household products
  • ether
  • chloroform
  • halothane
  • nitrous oxide
  • butane (lighters)
  • propane
  • whipping cream containers that contain nitrous oxide.

Most inhalants cause intoxication and euphoria. Nitrates are a noticeable exception. Mostly abused by older teens and young adults, nitrates are used in the belief that the inhalants heighten sexual function and sensation. Nitrates include the following inhalants:

  • cyclohexyl nitrate (found in room deodorizers)
  • isoamyl/amyl nitrate (prescribed for heart pain)
  • butyl nitrate (an illegal street drug).

Both amyl nitrate and butyl nitrate are often sold on the street in small bottles, and are referred to as poppers.

Huffing and Other Inhalant Use

Huffing is only one method of inhalant use. When huffing, inhalant abusers soak a rag with the inhalant and stuff the rag in their mouths. The inhalant is then inspirated rapidly and repeatedly, hence the term huffing.

Other methods of inhalant use include sniffing or snorting the inhalants directly from a container, or spraying aerosols directly into the mouth. Balloons can be filled with gas and inhaled as the balloon deflates. This is a common method for inhaling nitrous oxide.

“Bagging” refers to inhaling from a plastic bag into which the inhalant has been emptied or sprayed.

No matter which method is used to inhale these toxic substances, abusing inhalants is always dangerous.

How Inhalants Act on the Brain

All inhalants are absorbed through the lungs and spread throughout the body and brain within minutes. With the exception of nitrates, inhalant use produces an effect similar to alcohol intoxication. The inhalant user may have slurred speech, experience euphoria and act dizzy or drunk. Intoxication from inhalant use lasts only a few minutes.

To prolong intoxication, users often engage in repetitive huffing. This is a particularly dangerous practice that can be fatal.

Sudden Sniffing Death and Inhalant Use

One of the most serious health complications associated with inhalant use is sudden sniffing death. Huffing or sniffing inhalants for long periods slowly fills the lungs with the inhalants and prevents the inhalant user from getting sufficient oxygen in the lungs. This results in the sudden onset of heart irregularities, which quickly worsen into heart failure.

Death from sudden sniffing death occurs within minutes. The condition is not confined to chronic inhalant users. People trying huffing or inhalant use for the first time are just as susceptible to sudden sniffing death as are long-term abusers.

Inhalant Use Health Risks

Long-term inhalant use can produce strong cravings and compulsive huffing. Withdrawal symptoms may develop when inhalant use is interrupted.

Other health concerns associated with long-term huffing and inhalant use include:

  • apathy and stupor
  • attention problems
  • brain and nervous system damage
  • confusion
  • damage to the heart, lungs, liver and kidneys
  • death by choking (from inhaling vomit)
  • death by suffocation (from bagging or huffing)
  • delirium
  • dementia
  • depression
  • fatal accidents
  • fetal developmental problems if the inhalant user is pregnant
  • hearing and vision problems
  • impaired cognitive function
  • impaired judgment
  • loss of coordination
  • muscle weakness
  • nausea and vomiting
  • spasticity
  • weight loss.

Inhalant Use Warning Signs

Educating children about the dangers of inhalant use and clear parental disapproval of such acts remain the best methods for preventing huffing. However, inhalant use can affect any family, so parents should learn to identify signs of huffing and other inhalant use.

Warning signs include:

  • apparent drunkenness
  • chemical odors from breath, clothing or child’s room
  • clothes soaked with chemicals
  • hidden empty spray paint or solvent containers
  • hidden rags soaked with chemicals
  • irritability, social withdrawal and depression
  • loss of appetite
  • nausea and vomiting
  • paint stains on the hands, face and clothes
  • red or runny nose
  • sores and rashes around the mouth and nose.

Street Slang Concerning Inhalant Use and Huffing

These are common terms for abused inhalants:

  • amys
  • boppers
  • climax
  • gluey
  • hardware
  • head cleaner
  • locker room
  • moon gas
  • poor man’s pot
  • poppers
  • snappers.

Resources

National Drug Intelligence Center. (2003, June). Inhalants fast facts [Product No. 2003-L0559-010].

National Drug Intelligence Center. (2001, November). Intelligence brief: Huffing [Document ID 2002-J0403-001].

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (nd).Inhalants [NIH Publication No. 00-3592]. Mind Over Matter.

National Institute of Drug Abuse. (revised 2005, March). Inhalant abuse [NIH Publication No. 05-3818]. NIDA Research Report Series.