Inhalants: A Cheap, Easy and Deadly High

Inhalants are in every home.

Sometimes it seems as though the battle against drug abuse is like the fable of the boy sticking his fingers in the leaking dike. Every time an effort is made to focus on a new, dangerous drug (in order to educate parents, law enforcement, schools and medical professionals); another underground drug seems to pop up to take its place. Take for example, the rapid rise of ecstasy use in the 90′s.

It was as if one day it never existed, and the next, it was everywhere.
However, as time went on and people began to see the damage that the drug could cause, either through studies, news reports, first-hand experience, and/or anti-drug campaigns; public sentiment began to turn. And the statistics show that ecstasy use has dropped over the last decade. But of course, like water springing from a new leak, other drugs rise in popularity just as ecstasy abuse declines. It may seem at times like a futile effort, but all we can do is to continue to talk about the drugs, whatever they may be, and educate ourselves and our children about the risks of abusing them.

In previous blog entries, we have focused on prescription drug abuse and how the lure of the easy high, often from their parent’s own medicine cabinets, proves to be a powerful temptation many young Americans give into. In this series, we will focus on another problem that is similar to prescription medications with its ease of availability and dangerous consequences: inhalants.
The use of inhalants, or “Huffing” as it is commonly known, has quietly become more popular among 12 year-olds than cigarette smoking or marijuana use.

In fact, a study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration show that 12 year olds actually abuse inhalants more than hallucinogens, marijuana and cocaine combined.
This may seem like a shocking statistic at first glance, since most people don’t even think of inhalants as a potential problem. But that goes right to the main reason that huffing is so prevalent. Potential inhalants are everywhere. They are legal to buy, in nearly every American’s home, and since their primary function isn’t a means to get high, they seem totally innocuous to most parents who think they’re homes are drug free. Also, since most parents don’t think of inhalants as drugs, many kids don’t either. The same kid, who would never use cocaine if offered to him or her, may not think twice about sniffing butane to “get a head-rush”.

It’s not a drug; it’s just “something they do to mess around.” It’s something kids do to “kill time” because they’re bored or because their friend did it and said it’s cool. Unfortunately, they don’t realize that they are playing russian-roulette with their lives every time they use.

In this article, we will continue our look into the dangerous and often overlooked problem of inhalant abuse.  A 2007 study showed that 17% of drug users claimed that their first drug experience ever was an inhalant. This means that almost one in five new drug users begin what can potentially be a life-long battle against addiction, with inhalants.

This statistic alone should be enough to put parents on guard. So what should they be on guard against? Focusing on the inhalants themselves can be difficult because the amount of household items that can be abused is staggering. To begin, we will look at some of the most commonly abused chemicals. These include:

  • super glue
  • freon (from air conditioning units)
  • gasoline
  • shoe polish
  • lighter fluid
  • spray paints
  • correction fluid (liquid paper)
  • paint-thinner
  • nitrous oxide

The method of huffing depends on the inhalant. For example, liquids like paint solvents and gasoline are often poured on rags and placed over the mouth while aerosols are often inhaled directly from the can or emptied into balloons or plastic bags and inhaled. Parents should therefore be on the look out for empty aerosol cans (or cans that feel full but have no propellant) and unexplained soaked rags.

The high these inhalants give the user is fast and powerful. Equaling the speed and intensity of the high, is the danger the user is in every time they use. Possible immediate side effects can include sudden cardiac arrest or “sudden sniffing death”. This induced heart attack can occur after a user has huffed many times or the very first time. In addition to this terrible result, is the even greater possibility of the user falling unconscious for short periods of time immediately after using or within a few minutes. This often leads to injuries from falling or traffic accidents.


Less obvious than these two deadly possibilities, are the longer reaching effects of inhalant use. This includes possible damage to the heart, liver, lungs, and hearing loss. Not to mention the danger inherent in handling dangerous, often flammable chemicals especially while intoxicated.

Since the high not only occurs quickly, it fades quickly, resulting in users abusing the chemicals many times in a single day, causing permanent damage to their bodies and minds. This leads to the more insidious and often overlooked addictive nature of the inhalants which not only can lead to addiction to  inhalants themselves, but also creates an addictive pattern that can continue on to other drugs and alcohol.

Parents that are concerned about the possibility of their children abusing inhalants should follow two main strategies. First, they should be on the lookout for signs of abuse, in the form of physical evidence (like the empty cans mentioned above) and in the suspected users bodies and behaviors. Physical signs to look for include: paint or chemical stains on their mouths or fingers, a chemical odor on their breath or skin. They may also show signs of dizziness, forgetfulness, irritability, anxiety, and a dazed, glassy eyed appearance.

The second strategy should always be education. Not just for parents, but the children as well. They should continue to learn as much about all potential drug abuses, and then communicate this knowledge to their children, so they are aware of the real dangers involved.

Of course, our treatment center for drugs and alcohol addiction has a staff of experts who are more than willing to answer any questions you may have don’t hesitate to call us at (949) 612-2128.