High on Inhalants

Every household's hidden threat.
© MSN Healthy Living // © MSN Health
Cheap, legal, and easily accessible, inhalants represent a serious threat in every home. Users breathe in the chemical vapors of anything from gasoline to felt markers to keyboard cleaners for a quick high that leaves them dizzy and momentarily euphoric—the initial effects of depriving the brain and body of oxygen.
Users cross every age group, and abuse is particularly prevalent among tweens and young teens. According to health officials, “huffing” is the leading form of substance abuse among 12-year-olds, besting marijuana by a significant margin.
Harvey Weiss, founder and director of the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition (NIPC), outlines three factors that make inhalant abuse so prominent. “One is ease of access. Two is perception of safety, where kids figure, ‘If these things are floating around my house, how dangerous can they be?’ And three is that inhalant abuse is rarely discussed with children. Parents need to address inhalants in those same conversations they have about drugs and alcohol.”
What to do
A parent who catches a “huffer” in the act may have a furious and panicked response, but Weiss warns strongly against alarming the user since every inhalant can cause Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome. “When substances are inhaled, the heart starts to beat irregularly,” Weiss explains. “Any sudden fright or alarm leads to a rush of adrenaline which can then cause the heart to fail.” British surveys indicate that of those children known to have died from inhalants, 30 percent were first-time users.
If you suspect someone of using, get informed. You can read up at the NICP and the National Institute on Drug Abuse; contact a local Poison Control Center, and speak with the school nurse. When you talk to the suspected user, speak in terms he or she will understand — huffing, sniffing, dusting—since the word “inhalants” may be as unknown to them as the very real dangers.
The inhalants can affect nearly every organ of the body.  They can cause brain cell death, memory problems, personality changes, coordination issues, and even sight problems and deafness.  They are also known to cause lung, liver and kidney damage.  They can cause muscle wasting and even leukemia.
1 of 8 Boy breathing into plastic bag (© BananaStock/age fotostock)


An April 2010 study printed in Pediatrics noted that more than 3,400 different products were reported as abused inhalants between 1993 and 2008. The highest fatality rates of all the products were seen with butane, the gas that fuels the common cigarette lighter. Among teenagers, fatalities from inhaling butane, propane or air fresheners are more common than deaths from abusing methamphetamines, oxycodone or cocaine.
2 of 8 Butane lighter (© Charles D. Winters/Photo Researchers, Inc)

Gasoline and Propane

The availability of gasoline at home explains why it’s among the most frequently used inhalants. According to the Pediatrics research, gasoline has a relatively low fatality rate compared to other products; however, it represents a proportionately greater problem for young children. By contrast, inhaled propane has a fatality rate second only to butane and is more prevalent among older children. Harvey Weiss remembers that for a time it was popular for groups of teens to roll up the windows of a car and fill the cabin with propane gas; tragically, some would relax into the high and attempt to light up a cigarette.
3 of 8 Gasoline can (© Jeffrey Coolidge/Getty Images)

Spray Paint

Any spray that comes out of an aerosol can—deodorant, air freshener, vegetable-oil spray, fabric protector, hair spray, furniture polish—is potentially deadly. Aerosols use chemical propellants to deliver the solution from the can into the air, and it’s these propellants that give the huffer a high. While the popularity of other inhalants has decreased over the past 15 years, propellant abuse has risen sharply. Users will often have watery eyes and episodes of vomiting. Someone who has been hitting spray paint may have paint stains around their fingers and mouth. 
4 of 8 Spray can (© D. Hurst/Alamy)


“Whippit” (or whippet) is the street name for the pressurized cartridge used in a whipped cream can. The mini canisters contain nitrous oxide—also known as laughing gas—which is an anesthetic commonly administered by dental surgeons. The psychoactive effect has been likened to alcohol intoxication. Ill-advisedly, 10-packs of these whipped-cream chargers are still commonly sold at the counters of stationery stores within a child’s line of vision. 
5 of 8 Whipped cream (© FoodCollection/Alamy)

Felt-tip Markers

Several marker brands are sold with children in mind, advertising a nontoxic product that can go into a child’s mouth without causing harm. Just because you could eat it or suck on it, though, doesn’t mean its fumes can be harmlessly inhaled. Markers and other products designed to dry quickly, such as nail polish removers, contain solvents that are harmful to inhale. The safest markers are water-soluble and have very low toxicity.
6 of 8 Felt-tip marker (© DAJ/Getty Images)

Correction Fluid

Sold routinely with school supplies and packaged in bottles that are easily pocketed, correction fluid is all too convenient for young users. The fluid contains toluene, the solvent also found in paint thinner which has been linked to liver damage, kidney damage, and brain damage in several iterations (including deterioration of brain tissue, loss of vision and hearing, and limb spasms). A 2002 study sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse determined that chronic abusers of solvents such as toluene have more brain abnormalities and cognitive impairments than abusers of cocaine.
7 of 8 Correction fluid (© Image100/Photolibrary)