Diana Zuckerman, PhD, Sarah Romano, and Elina Mir. National Center for Health Research
What are Inhalants?
Inhalants are vaporous substances that are commonly inhaled to experience a mind-altering event or “high.” Many common household substances such as nail polish remover, glues, lighter fluid, hair sprays, and cleaning supplies can be used as inhalants. <1>
Common Methods of Use: <1>
Huffing: when a rag soaked in an inhalant is breathed in to get a “high.”
Inhaling: a balloon full of nitrous oxide (used for refillable whipped cream cans, as an example) is inhaled.
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Bagging: fumes are sprayed into a bag then used to cover the mouth, nose, or head.
Sniffing: fumes are sprayed directly into the nose or mouth.
‘Tween & Teenagers Choice of Drug’
Getting high by breathing in fumes from glue, paint, cleaners, and other products is a popular pastime for teenagers. Huffing usually peaks in the eighth grade.<2> In fact, every year between 2003 and 2008, more 8th grade students said they had used inhalants than said they had used marijuana in their lifetimes.<3>
According to a 2015 report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA), 1.8 million Americans aged 12 and older used an inhalant to get high in 2015. Approximately 38% of them (684,000) were adolescents between 12 and 17 years old. The children reported using various substances to get high, but the most common inhalants used were felt-tipped pens/markers, such as magic markers.
A 2012 report by the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) found that 13% of 8th graders had used inhalants. They also found that almost 5% of 8th graders reported using inhalants in the past year. The use of inhalants is extremely dangerous: They can cause cardiac arrest and suffocation. Regular misuse can even lead to damage of the heart, lungs, kidney, and liver. <1>Kids who don’t understand the health risks of inhalants don’t know that huffing can kill – even on the first try. Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome is a risk for inhalant users every time they huff, and is the most common cause of death related to inhalant use. Other risks include suffocation, accidental injury, and reactions between the chemicals in the specific inhalants used and other chemicals.<4>
Even with all the risks, inhalant use may be an attractive option for young teens looking to get high. In a focus group, one 14 year old female who had used inhalants in the past commented that they are popular because they are cheap. She said kids who can’t afford drugs “use inhalants instead, so they are able to afford them.” <2> In fact, many inhalants can be found at home in the garage or under the kitchen sink. These everyday household products are not only readily available but they are easy to hide. And the high from huffing is short, which makes young teens less likely to be caught by parents.
What are the signs?
Thankfully for parents, there are signs to look for when kids are using inhalants. You could find a collection of potential inhalants in a child’s room or even a single potential inhalant hidden in an unusual, suspicious location, like a can of gasoline hidden under a child’s bed. Changes in behavior like apathy, loss of appetite, change of friends, or a drop in school grades can also be a result of inhalant abuse. Also, children who use inhalants might have a chemical odor on their breath for several hours after use or on their clothing, especially if the product spilled. <4>
What can parents do?
It’s important to have an honest conversation with your child about the risks of inhalant use. Talk to them about what inhalants are–deadly chemicals. Make sure they are aware that it’s not just a “harmless” way to get a “high”. If you’re worried that your child may be engaging in inhalant use, check their school supplies. Switch their solvent-based products for water-based ones.
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If you catch your child huffing, sniffing, or bagging, remember to stay calm. If your child is breathing, relocate your child to a well-ventilated area until the effects of the fumes wear off. If your child isn’t breathing or unconscious, get emergency medical help. If you believe your child may have a problem, reach out for professional help. Speak to your child’s pediatrician, drug rehabilitation facilities, and look into consulting a professional for therapy mental health treatment. With the right resources, your child will stop inhalant use and learn to make better lifestyle choices. <5>
All articles are reviewed and approved by Dr. Diana Zuckerman and other senior staff.
1. NIDA. Inhalants. National Institute on Drug Abuse website. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/inhalants/letter-director. July 1, 2012. Accessed June 11, 2018.2. Siegel JT et al.”…you would probably want to do it. Cause that’s what made them popular”: Exploring Perceptions of Inhalant Utility Among Young Adolescent Nonusers and Occasional Users. Substance Use and Misuse. 2009;44:597-615.3. University of Michigan. Monitoring the future survey. http://monitoringthefuture.org/data/09data/pr09t1.pdf. Updated August 20, 2010. Accessed August 25, 2010.4. Williams JF et al. Inhalant abuse. Pediatrics. 2007;119:1009-1017.5. Mayo Clinic Staff. Inhalant abuse: Is your child at risk? Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/tween-and-teen-health/in-depth/inhalant-abuse/art-20044510. Published January 13, 2018. Accessed June 11, 2018