Huffing: Is Your Child or Teen Huffing (Inhalant Abuse)?

  • Medical Author:
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

  • Medical Editor: Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD
    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Dr. Charles "Pat" Davis, MD, PhD, is a board certified Emergency Medicine doctor who currently practices as a consultant and staff member for hospitals. He has a PhD in Microbiology (UT at Austin), and the MD (Univ. Texas Medical Branch, Galveston). He is a Clinical Professor (retired) in the Division of Emergency Medicine, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and has been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at UT Medical Branch and at UTHSCSA with over 250 publications.

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Common Household Products - A Source of Inhalant Abuse

Reports in 2005 about teens dying after inhaling the chemical difluoroethane from a popular computer-cleaning spray known as Dust-Off called widespread attention to the practice of inhalant abuse. Then, as now, the product Dust-Off itself was not the source of the problem; it is only one example of hundreds of common household products with the potential to be abused by inhalant abusers.

Inhalant abuse (commonly called "huffing") is the intentional inhalation of chemical vapors to attain a mental "high" or euphoric effect. A wide variety of substances, including many common household products, are abused by inhalers (see list below). The 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) revealed that the primary population of inhalant abusers (68%) is under 18 years of age. Although inhalant abuse is declining from its peak in the 1990s, it is still a significant problem. In 2011, 7% of eighth graders reported inhalant use, along with 4.5% of 10th graders and 3.2% of 12th graders.

Inhalants produce an effect that may be similar to alcohol intoxication. Initial symptoms described by abusers who were "huffing" include

Further use can lead to the following:

Long-term inhalant abusers can suffer damaging health consequences including

More serious consequences can include

permanent damage to the brain and other organs or even death. Sudden cardiac death from fatal cardiac arrhythmias has been reported even in teen inhalant abusers. Death from huffing can occur upon the first time of use or after prolonged inhalant abuse. Other causes of death related to huffing include asphyxiation, aspiration, or suffocation.

Chronic inhalant abuse may result in serious and sometimes irreversible damage to the user's heart, liver, kidneys, lungs, and brain. Brain damage may result in personality changes, diminished cognitive functioning, memory impairment, and slurred speech. Further, inhalant users usually begin smoking, using alcohol, and using other drugs at younger ages and display a higher lifetime prevalence of substance-use disorders than those who do not use inhalants.

Substances commonly used by inhalant abusers fall into several categories:

  • Volatile solvents, such as those found in paint thinner, gasoline, felt-tip markers, nail polish remover, glue, and other household products.
  • Aerosol sprays containing propellants and solvents: Examples include spray paint, deodorant, and hair-care products.
  • Gases, most commonly nitrous oxide (laughing gas)
  • Nitrites, a group of chemicals that are used in room deodorizers, are more often abused by those seeking sexual enhancement rather than a euphoric state. Nitrites are most commonly abused by adults.

Parents of teens need to be especially vigilant about signs of inhalant abuse (huffing), since the abused substances are simple household items and not readily identifiable as drugs of abuse. Signs of inhalant abuse include chemical smells on clothing or breath, slurred speech, loss of appetite, nausea, a drunk or disoriented appearance, pain or stains on skin or clothing, inattentiveness, and lack of coordination. Chemical-soaked rags or empty spray paint or other solvent containers may be found. Inhalants are substances that are easily purchased and are inexpensive, making them attractive to curious teens.

For additional information, please visit the following areas:

REFERENCES:

United States Department of Health & Human Services.

United States. National Institute on Drug Abuse. "Inhalant Abuse." July 2012. <http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/inhalant-abuse>.


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Reviewed on 12/1/2014

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