In General Knowledge for the Family, Physical & Mental Health

Inhalant Abuse: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

What is inhalant abuse? It is commonly called huffing, snorting or sniffing. It is becoming one of the more popular ways for a child or teen to get high. It is just as serious an addiction as to alcohol, tobacco or any street drug. The side effects can be debilitating. They include damage to the liver, lungs and brain. Sometimes inhalant abusers die from their addiction.

Basically, if a person sniffs a substance and feels much better afterwards, then that substance has altered the sniffer’s brain chemistry to produce a high. Many of these substances that can produce a high are hard to avoid in modern life and all of them are legal. For example, doctors often recommend a vaporizer for many conditions. However, not everyone who uses a vaporizer becomes another statistic of Vicks inhaler abuse.

What’s Being Huffed?

Over 1,000 legal products are used to get high. The most common inhalants used to get high include:

  • Asthma inhaler
  • Vicks vaporizer products
  • Correction fluid or White Out
  • Non-stick cooking spray
  • Nail polish remover
  • Air fresheners
  • Hair spray
  • Helium
  • Cleaning fluid
  • Dusting aerosols or sprays
  • Markers
  • Glue
  • Spray paint
  • Gasoline
  • Butane lighting fluid
  • Shoe polish
  • Nitrous oxide or “laughing gas”
  • Empty or nearly empty cans of Reddi Whip dessert topping
  • Weather coating spray for tents or other camping equipment.

Addicts are very creative in finding ways to get a better high from their preferred substance. Rags may be soaked in fluids and then placed over the nose and mouth. Some spray directly into the mouth or extremely close to the nose. Asthma inhaler abuse consists of taking far more puffs than is necessary to breathe comfortably.

Causes of Inhalants Abuse

It is unknown what precisely causes any sort of addiction, including huffing. It is known that huffing is pleasurable to some people more than others. This pleasure reinforces the habit. Teens and younger children are most prone to huffing, but it can be found in all age groups. According to the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition, Caucasians, Native Americans and Hispanics are the most prone to becoming addicts. Just why is unknown. Boys are more prone to huffing than girls.

One theory is that getting high fulfils a need that is missing in a person’s life. Despite the dangers, addicts will cling to their addiction because the addictive substance seems to be a more reliable friend than other people or family members.

Symptoms of Inhalant Abuse

Symptoms and signs of huffing are difficult to spot until something drastic happens. However, if a child seems drunk or mysteriously drowsy or faint, then these could be warning signs of huffing. Some children may steal money in order to buy whatever their preferred substance is or begin shoplifting it.

Addicts who have been huffing for long periods of time often become apathetic, become dizzy more than usual, talk in slurred speech, show anti-social behavior, loss of appetite and begin losing weight. They can also become depressed or suffer from radical mood changes. Their internal organs, including the brain, also become damaged from prolonged exposure to these toxic substances. Other symptoms can include:

  • Inability to concentrate or take simple directions
  • Uninhibited sexual behavior
  • Seizures or uncontrollable limb spasms
  • Sudden interest in drinking or using tobacco products
  • Increase in memory problems
  • Sudden or increase in incoordination not associated with growth spurts, side effects from new medications or other medical disorders.

Worst Case Scenario

What is the worst that can happen to someone who huffs or snorts? Sudden sniffing death syndrome describes exactly what happens. The child dies from suffocation or a stopped heart or both. Sometimes a person can die the very first time he or she huffs. If a child is found unconscious, call an ambulance immediately. If the child is not breathing, administer CPR until the child is breathing on his or her own. notes that sudden sniffing death syndrome can happen accidentally to people who never huffed in their lives. For example, winners of the infamous Darwin Awards include two young lovers who decided to get frisky inside of a huge helium balloon as it was filling up. They died of suffocation when the helium replaced the oxygen in the balloon. Whenever using strong-smelling substances like paint, art supplies or automotive fluids, make sure the room is well-ventilated or use the product outside.

My Kid Would Never Do This!

Many parents delude themselves into thinking that their children would never get into huffing. All humans are curious. Our curiosity is one reason why our species has become so successful. Children may experiment, discover that they get high by accident or have friends introduce them to the habit. The facts are than even the best-behaved child can become an addict.

Statistics for huffing are alarming. In a 2011 University of Michigan study, nearly 15% of all eight graders surveyed admitted to huffing. Although some of the children may have lied, the chances are unlikely that so many lied.


Treatment specifically for inhalant abuse is difficult at best, since very few addiction specialists have worked with huffers. It is much easier to get a minor admitted to a rehabilitation facility than an adult because an adult has the legal right to resist. Addicts do experience severe withdrawal symptoms from whatever they snort. These can include severe headaches, vomiting, diiarrhea, flu-like symptoms and seizures. This is why the rehabilitation process needs to be closely supervised.

According to the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition, it can take anywhere from 30 to 40 days for the drug to leave a person’s system. Even then, the chances of relapse are high. Addicts may do best with talk therapy to look into why they wanted the inhalant in the first place and why it has taken such a large priority in their lives. Therapists may want to talk to the whole family of an inhalant addict.

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