Huffing is a Serious Substance Abuse Problem

Huffing, the practice of breathing in inhalants for a buzz, is perceived by most people as something that teenagers experiment with to get high. Actually, the problem is much more widespread (and dangerous) than previously thought.

Huffing: The Hidden Substance Abuse Problem

“Huffing” is the slang term for inhaling chemical vapors – often household goods.  A new report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) shows that this phenomenon deserves more attention.  Although there is still cause for concern about huffing by children and teenagers, the reality is that more adults than teenagers currently abuse inhalants.  The study, which used data from treatment facilities across the nation, indicated that in excess of one million adults practiced huffing in 2010.  This is more than the number seeking treatment for heroin, crack or LSD.

Abuse of Common Household Products

Most huffers abuse substances that are commonly found in the home, including spray paint, glue, nail polish remover, aerosol deodorant, markers, whipped cream canisters and cooking spray.  The vapors from these household products act on the body in a way similar to an anesthetic.

These are some of the immediate effects of huffing:
•    A slowing down in the body’s functions
•    Decrease in inhibitions
•    Agitation and violent behavior
•    Hallucinations
•    Loss of consciousness

Deadly Side Effects of Huffing

The most serious side effect of huffing is Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome.  This refers to the fact that an inhalant abuser can die at any time that he or she is huffing, whether it’s the first time or the 100th time that an inhalant has been sniffed.  The most common cause of death while huffing is heart dysfunction.

Dr. H. Westley Clark, a director at SAMHSA, summarized the situation: “Inhalant abuse is an equal opportunity killer that does not discriminate on the basis of age, background or gender.”  Dr. Clark is referring to the risk of sudden death as well as the serious consequences of long-term huffing, which can include irreversible damage to the lungs, kidneys, liver, bone marrow, eyes and brain.

Treatment for Inhalant Abuse

Because huffing is a less well-known substance abuse problem, the best forms of treatment have not been well-publicized.  Huffing is addictive and may require the abuser to go through a period of medically-supervised withdrawal when trying to quit.  According to the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition, detoxification may require up to thirty or forty days.  During detox, individuals may experience tremors, headaches, muscle cramps, nausea, sweating, chills, hallucinations and other symptoms of delirium tremens.  Following detox, it is critical that recovering inhalant abusers receive follow-up treatment and counseling since huffing has a high rate of relapse.

Inhalant Abuse Prevention

Educating young people about the dangers of huffing is the best way to cut down on the number who will abuse inhalants as adults.  In a press release related to the SAMHSA survey, Director Gil Kerlikowske of the Office of National Drug Control Policy reminded parents to be vigilant about children and dangerous products found in the home.  In addition to prescription drugs stored in household medicine cabinets, parents should also be aware of inhalants stored under household sinks and in garages and utility rooms.  According to Kerlikowske, “Parents need to act today to protect our young people by securing these products and discussing the harms they cause.”