The Dangers of Huffing—What Every Parent Should Know about Inhalants

Albert Fontenot Teen Substance Abuse Leave a Comment

The Foundation for a Drug-Free World, reports that 20% of American adolescents1 out of every 5 – will experiment with inhalants by the eighth grade. Inhalants are the most-frequently-abused intoxicant by adolescents and younger teenagers, the majority of parents remain clueless about the dangerous, potentially-deadly practice of “huffing”.

What is “Huffing” and What Are Some of the Inhalants That Teenagers Use?

“Huffing” – also known as “sniffing” – is the purposeful inhalation of the fumes or vapors from any of several household products to achieve a quick euphoric high.  The practice is popular among adolescents and young teens because there are more than one thousand easily-obtainable products available:

  • Lighter fluid (butane) – the most-commonly-abused inhalant in America
  • Model or industrial glue
  • Gasoline
  • Aerosol spray paint
  • Shoe polish
  • Paint thinner
  • Correction fluid
  • Nitrous oxide
  • Rubber cement

Inhalant Abuse in America by the Numbers

They are under the bathroom sink, in the kitchen cabinet, and in the garage. They are in the refrigerator and on the school secretary’s desk. They are in the closet at school and at the dentist’s office. They are inhalants, the drug of choice of elementary school students and one of the favorites of junior high and high school students.”

~Francha Roffe’ Menhard, The Facts about Inhalants

The abuse of inhalants is pervasive. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that inhalants are the only substance abused more by adolescents and young teens (12-14) than by older ones.

Other statistics about teenage inhalant use include:

  • Over One MILLION US adolescents and teens age 12-17 self-report past-year inhalant use.
  • 59% of teenagers knows someone who uses inhalants.
  • Nearly 23 MILLION Americans will try inhalants at some point during their lifetime.
  • Every year, nearly 70% of inhalant abusers are first-time users.
  • Inhalant use can start soon as 4th grade.
  • Huffing/sniffing is the only type of substance use that is initiated primarily by children.
  • 58% of huffers began the practice before they completed the 9th
  • 8th-graders have the highest rates of inhalant use.
  • A higher percentage of 8th grade girls use inhalants than 8th grade boys (6% vs 5.5%).
  • Roughly one-third of teens in the juvenile justice system regularly use inhalants.
  • Adolescents and teens 12-17 make up 40% of inhalant abuse treatment admissions.
  • Inhalant abuse is the most-frequent cause of treatment admissions within that age demographic.

Is Huffing Dangerous?

Inhalants of abuse contain many extremely toxic chemicals, making the practice extraordinarily hazardous. Inhalant misuse is can result in immediate, permanent damage to a teen’s brain, liver, heart, bone marrow, kidneys, and other vital organs.

Short-term inhalant abuse effects include:

  • Slurred or incoherent speech
  • Impaired balance and coordination
  • Hallucinations/Delusions
  • Confusion/Impaired judgment
  • Aggression/Hostility
  • Loss of consciousness

Prolonged inhalant abuse effects include:

  • Long-term disorientation
  • General apathy
  • Depression
  • Memory loss
  • Lowered IQ
  • Cognitive loss
  • Hearing problems
  • Blood disorders
  • Coma

Even first-time inhalant use can prove deadly:

  • Asphyxiation – Vapor concentration can replace the oxygen in the user’s lungs
  • Suffocation – One method of use is to trap vapors by putting a plastic bag over the head.
  • Convulsions/Seizures – Inhalant abuses disrupts the brain’s electrical activity
  • Choking – Aspirating vomit
  • Injuries – fatal accidents, car crashes, falls, etc.

55% of inhalant-related deaths are caused by Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome, where the user goes into sudden, unexpected cardiac arrest. 1 out of every 4 people who fall victim to SSDS were first-time users.

Signs of Inhalant Abuse

Because most of the abused products are common household items, it is sometimes difficult to know for sure if your child is experimenting/using inhalants. If you suspect the possibility, then keep a watchful eye out for certain telltale signs:

Changes in appearance:

  • Breath smells like chemicals
  • Paint stains on their clothing, fingernails, or face
  • Sores/Rash around the mouth and nose
  • Sniffling/Runny nose
  • Rapid or unexplained weight loss
  • Glassy, vacant expression
  • Poor coordination
  • Lack of personal hygiene

Changes in behavior:

  • Disorientation
  • Confusion
  • Unintelligible speech
  • Absentmindedness
  • Inability to focus
  • Aggression/irritability
  • Extreme excitability/anxiety
  • Poor academic performance
  • Apathy in formally-enjoyed hobbies
  • Social isolation and withdrawal

Physical evidence:

  • Chemical-soaked clothing or rags
  • Plastic bags containing inhalant residue
  • Depleted aerosol spray cans
  • Misplaced substances – spray paint/gas cans in their bedroom or bathroom, computer duster in their book bag, etc.
  • Unexplained or missing money

What Can I Do If I Think That My Teen Is Using Inhalants?

If you suspect that your adolescent/teenager is abusing inhalants, then you must act quickly – it can TRULY be a matter of life and death.

Huffing can be addictive, just like other types of substance abuse. Chronic inhalant abuse can lead to tolerance, and your teen  can become physically and/or psychologically dependent.

As an addiction develops, chemical and physical changes happen to the brain, compromising your teen’s ability to control WHEN, HOW much, or even IF they huff. It is no longer a choice. No matter what they say or how much they promise, it is unlikely that your teenager will be able to quit using inhalants without specialized professional care.

Recovering from inhalant addiction necessitates many of the same of the same practices utilized in recovery from other addictive disorders:

  • Abstaining from all intoxicants
  • One-on-one counseling
  • Peer group therapy
  • Addiction education
  • Relapse prevention strategies
  • 12-Step fellowship programs
  • Aftercare and ongoing support

If your teenager is abusing inhalants or any other substance, your family needs professional intervention and treatment.  Only a certified addiction specialist has the training and experience needed to help your teen regain their sobriety and learn how to make healthier choices.