“Huffing,” or inhaling volatile substances, is becoming increasingly popular among children, especially among 12- to 14-year-olds (Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, 1998;152(8):781–786).
Alarmingly, about 20% of eighth-graders report having done it (International Journal of Addiction, 1993;28:1613–1621).
Besides sudden cardiac arrest (the most common cause of death from inhalants), huffing can kill quickly in a number of other ways. Motor vehicle accidents, falls, and other traumatic injuries are common and horrible. Others die from suffocation, burns, suicide (from the depression that can follow the high), and from choking–on their own vomit.
Huffing can kill the very first time children experiment with it. About 22% of those who die from huffing do so the first time they try it (Human Toxicology, 1989;8:261–269).
When huffing doesn’t kill quickly, it damages the body each time–especially the brain. Huffing can cause memory loss, impaired concentration, hearing loss, loss of coordination, and permanent brain damage. Chronic use can cause permanent heart, lung, liver, and kidney damage as well.
Solvents (found in glues, paints, and polishes), fuels (such as butane), nitrites (found in deodorizers), and almost any kind of aerosol spray can be responsible.
Most huffing takes place with friends (although kids who sniff correction fluid in class when their teachers turn away are not uncommon). Be observant of your child and his or her friends.
Inhalants gradually leave the body for 2 weeks following huffing–mostly through exhaling. The characteristic odor is the biggest clue. Be on the lookout for breath or clothing that smells like chemicals. Look for clothing stains. Watch for spots or sores around the mouth.
Nausea, lack of appetite, weight loss, nervousness, restlessness, and outbursts of anger can all be signs of inhalant abuse. A drunk, dazed, or glassy-eyed appearance might mean your child is abusing inhalants right now.
If you suspect or discover that you child is huffing, get professional help. Treating inhalant abuse is very difficult and requires expert intervention. Withdrawal symptoms may last for weeks. The relapse rate without a long-term (2-year) program is very high.
Preventing huffing is far better than trying to treat an inhalant addiction. Talking with your child about it is more powerful than anything else (NIDA Research Monograph, 1988;85:8–29).
Start talking with your child about it now. Although huffing peaks between the ages of 12 and 15 years, it often starts “innocently” in children only 6 to 8 years old (Pediatrics, 1996;97:3).
Literally thousands of easily available substances can be inhaled, so you can’t keep your child away from them. You can, however, educate and inspire.
For more information on huffing, I recommend visiting www.inhalant.org.
Last reviewed: December 05, 2008