The Dangers of Inhaled Aerosols or Huffing

I am living every parent’s nightmare — my son Keith is dead. Dr. Greene, I am fighting a battle. It’s a battle to teach as many people as I can about what is known as “huffing” — inhaling of aerosol products, of any kind, from a plastic bag. It’s really frightening because aerosol is so accessible to kids. In Kinnelon it is the #1 “drug” problem that we are facing. Yet not one adult who I have encountered has any idea about huffing. I don’t want any family to suffer the agony of losing a child. Help me save even one life!
Margaret Wagner – Kinnelon

The Dangers of Huffing

Dr. Greene’s Answer:

Teens don’t remember what it was like when they were babies, but their parents remember. We remember rocking them to sleep and the intimacy of feeding. We remember later when we helped them learn to go on the potty and to tie their shoes. We remember the first day of kindergarten, and sleepovers, and helping them with their homework. We remember sitting worried by their bedsides when they were sick. We remember vacations and Halloween costumes and birthday parties. How jarringly tragic when a child dies suddenly, needlessly–when there are no more birthdays to celebrate.

“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). Huffing can kill the very first time children experiment with it. Alarmingly, about 17% of eighth-graders report having done it (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2004). Margaret, you are not alone; every day, children die from huffing.

A bunch of guys get together to hang out. One of the older ones (not yours) describes a cheap, cool, legal way to get high. It’s a rush–and there’s nothing wrong with it. All it takes is stuff around the home. An impromptu scavenger hunt produces some room deodorizer or some typewriter correction fluid and some empty soda cans, balloons, or plastic bags. Just spray the stuff in the can or bag and inhale. The kids feel mature. They feel the thrill of doing something a little out of bounds. They feel the rush from the chemicals.

At first these chemicals act as stimulants. The kids feel uninhibited, powerful, and are prone to impulsive behavior. If they keep inhaling, they start to feel drunk. Speech becomes slurred, and the gait becomes staggered. Often they begin to hallucinate. Drowsiness and sleep follow the euphoria. But nightfall, the high is interrupted when one of them drops dead suddenly.

Huffing can stop a strong, young heart without warning–a heart that should have kept on beating during graduation, while getting married, and in synch with that of a newborn baby.

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 such as you have described, 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. 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.

How can you tell if your child might be huffing?

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, declining school performance 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.

What can you do to prevent your child from huffing?

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;97:420-3). 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. Begin talking with your child about inhalants by the time he or she is in kindergarten. This is also an important age to set an example in your own use of intoxicating substances. Talk and role-play often about the important skill of being able to resist peer pressure.

Most parents and children are unaware of the extreme dangers of sniffing or huffing inhalants. I hope, Margaret, that word of your profound tragedy saves the futures of many parents’ children.

May 9, 2008

Dr. Alan Greene

Dr. Greene is the founder of DrGreene.com (cited by the AMA as “the pioneer physician Web site”), a practicing pediatrician, father of four, & author of Raising Baby Green & Feeding Baby Green. He appears frequently in the media including such venues as the The New York Times, the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, & the Dr. Oz Show.

  1. Polly

    I have known nothing about huffing until recently. Read your statistic for returning to this abuse if not in a long term recovery program-hit me like a lead weight. We have a loved one who we have discovered returning to this lifestyle. In complete denial. Started as a teen, got some counseling but doubt it to be a long term recovery program. Is there anything we can do to help this person realize the destruction that is happening to the health and wellbeing – the self destructive path being followed? Not to mention the destruction of relationships it has caused as abandonment of family, friends and husband has recently unfolded. Anything?

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  2. Danielle

    I’m now almost 22 and I started sniffing cans of deodorant when I was around 10/11 through peer pressure of friends doing it. Safe to say I was hooked from the get go, ended up at the worst sniffing anything I could get my hands on, even 20-30 cans of deodorant a day by the time I was 14. My family would hide anything sniffable (didn’t work I’d always find it).

    I haven’t touched any in around a year now and because of how much I used to sniff I now have kidney damage, get kidney infections, etc. Not much that can be done because once you damage yourself, you’re damaged! Safe to say relapse happens, even I relapse well haven’t in a year, but I know at some point I probably will!

    You cannot hide it from your child, you have to talk to them about the reasons why they are doing it! They aren’t doing it for fun, heroin users don’t inject themselves because it’s fun. There’s an underling issue that you need to find out. It’s highly addictive and highly dangerous. All I can say is never be ashamed to go to your gp for help. That is how I actually stopped — had to go to drug addiction meetings and was classed as an addict, but it really does help.

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  3. Nobody Important

    Way back when I was 15 I began huffing, I’d trip out ant I thought it was the wildest rush there was, it continued for years. My behavior was abnormal, I did things that were horrible, and most of the time I had no clue as to what I was doing, sometimes I thought it was just the trip I was on at the time. I’m now 54 and I have heart problems. I stopped that foolishness many years ago and I’ve never gone back to doing it. Watch for the signs, it’s not funny when the kid is acting weird at any time of day or night. Sniffing their breath to see if they’ve been drinking isn’t the answer. Get them checked and keep an eye on them. I guess in a way I was lucky I somehow survived and here I am today trying to warn parents of a danger.

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  4. sharon

    Adults are not immune to huffing. It is an inexpensive high. It is a danger. Everyone, children and adults alike should be educated. I believe we should find an alternative to the substances that make this horrendous activity impossible.

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  5. Leon dankwory

    Hey I’ve been inhaling solvents since the age of about 12-13 I’m now 26 and although I stopped for about 3 yes I have started again. I dint know what to do I fear it’s badly affecting my health but feel embarrassed and ashamed do don’t feel I can go to Dr’s also I’ve been led to believe adult addiction is uncommon which makes me even more reluctant to speak out. At my worst I would inhale up to 20 cans of deodorant a day! Having to shoplift to feed my habit. Now I’m inhaling about 1-2 cans a day and inhaling lighter gas refill I desperately need advice.

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    • Aidan

      Hey Leon. I hope your doing well these days. I’m not a medical expert or anything, I do really hope you keep working on getting clean. I’m sure there are many people in your life that want you to and I want you to live as well. Dr. Greene said right in the article to look at doing a program or rehab, if you can do this that would be great. Whatever you do end up doing, I hope you reach out and get the help you need.

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    • saul

      So what happened because I breathed in a can of spray deodorant and I’m not feeling anything yet. I’m 12 yrs of age by the way. And my biggest fear is death. I’m afraid what might happen to me, even though it was really quick about 1 quick second.

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  6. Eden Renata

    Hi. My name is Eden and I am 14 years old. I have been inhaling aerosols for the past 3 1/2 months on and off.

    Before all of this, in 2014, I had been going through depression and smoking and also self harm. I was told by a group of friends to try inhaling Rexona with a tea towel. Of course like most teenagers, I tried it and I can’t stop. My parents found out I was doing it and I was told to stop, but I can’t.

    I am afraid I am taking my life without knowing it.

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    • diane

      Eden. Please get help darling. Brake the cycle of addiction now. Tell your mum to take you to see the doctor tell the truth if you ate feeling low tell him. My son was like you , but he hide his problems and he died from solvent abuse on new years day. It won’t get better until you make people aware you need help . please do this for yourself and for my son Ben. Mum x

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  7. Guest

    ……

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