Is Huffing Addictive? Inhalant Drugs and Effects

inhalants

What Is “Huffing?”

Inhalant misuse, or “huffing” has become common among teenagers. It is the act of sniffing or inhaling fumes from your everyday run-of-the-mill household products. Huffing produces a high that is similar to drinking alcohol. Some of the street names for inhalants are Air blast, Bolt, Bullet, Poppers, Snappers, Moon gas, and many more.

For adolescents, huffing is appealing because the products are easy to get and affect the brain immediately. Unknown to most people though, that is where the problems begin. The inhalants contain an abundance of chemicals which absorb into the lungs and then travel throughout the body. 

Some of the chemicals leave the body quickly, but others remain there for longer periods. Because of this, the high is experienced almost instantly, featuring slurred speech, dizziness, lack of coordination, and elation much like the effects of alcohol.

Are Inhalants Addictive?

Yes, inhalants can be physically and psychologically addictive. This makes inhalants a form of substance use disorder (SUD).  An SUD develops when continuing to use the drug causes health problems and consequences at work, school, or home. SUDs range from mild to severe. The most severe form is addiction.

Users say they have a strong urge to continue huffing, especially after using inhalants over many days. Individuals coming off inhalants experience withdrawals the same as any other user of an addictive substance.

What Substances are Inhalant Drugs?

Other substances that are misused can be inhaled, but the term “inhalants” means substances that are used only by inhaling. Inhalants include:

Solvents—industrial or household products, including:

  • Paint thinners or removers
  • Dry-cleaning fluids
  • Gasoline
  • Lighter fluid
  • Correction fluids
  • Felt-tip marker fluid
  • Electronic contact cleaners
  • Glue

Aerosols—household aerosol items:

  • Spray paints
  • Hair or deodorant sprays
  • Aerosol computer cleaning sprays
  • Vegetable oil sprays

Gases—found in household or commercial products including:

  • Butane lighters
  • Propane tanks
  • Whipped cream aerosols or dispensers
  • Ether
  • Chloroform
  • Nitrous oxide

Nitrites—often sold in small brown bottles labeled as:

  • Video head cleaner
  • Room deodorizer
  • Leather cleaner
  • Liquid aroma

How Does Huffing Affect the Brain?

When you huff, the inhalant affects the brain. Inhaling substances or fumes through the mouth or nose can cause permanent physical and mental damage. They starve the body of oxygen and make the heart beat irregularly and faster. The most damage is caused to the brain tissue when the toxic fumes are sniffed straight into the sinus. Because oxygen flow is cut-off from the brain, permanent brain damage and delayed behavioral development may result.

Inhalants v. Alcohol

Compared to alcohol, inhalants do much more far-reaching and long-term damage to the body. Inhalants have the ability to break down the protective layer that surrounds the nerves. This protective cover is essential for proper functioning because it helps the nerve fibers send information to and from the brain. Due to this, it can produce similar damage to that of MS (multiple sclerosis)—muscle spasms, tremors, or difficulty walking, bending over, and talking.

Short-term use can lead to:

  • Loss of sense of smell
  • Nausea
  • Nosebleeds 
  • Liver problems
  • Lung problems
  • Kidney problems
  • Death by heart attack or suffocation when the fumes take the place of oxygen in the lungs and central nervous system
  • Sudden, extremely violent reactions

Long-term use can lead to:

  • Reduced muscle mass
  • Reduced muscle tone and strength
  • Inability to walk
  • Inability to talk and think normal
  • Can permanently damage the body and brain
  • Heart failure
  • Liver damage
  • Permanent damage to the brain and spinal cord
  • Death

How do People Use Inhalants?

Inhalants are used by breathing in the fumes through the nose or mouth. It’s done by “sniffing,” “snorting,” “bagging,” or “huffing.” It’s called different names depending on the substance and the equipment being used. 

  • Sniffing or snorting fumes from containers
  • Spraying aerosols directly into the nose or mouth
  • Bagging—inhaling fumes from items sprayed or deposited inside a paper or plastic bag
  • Huffing from a rag soaked with an inhalant stuffed in the mouth
  • Inhaling from balloons filled with nitrous oxide

Intoxication from inhalants only lasts a few minutes. Because of that, people with this addiction frequently try to prolong the high by inhaling repeatedly over and over again, which is a very dangerous process.

Can You Overdose on Inhalants?

A person can overdose on inhalants. An overdose happens when a person uses too much of a drug that causes a toxic reaction, The toxic reaction results in serious symptoms or death. Inhalant overdose symptoms can cause seizures, coma, or cause the heart to stop. 

As mentioned, solvents and aerosol sprays are very concentrated, that is, they contain a large number of chemicals and a lot of active ingredients. Sniffing them can cause the heart to stop in minutes. This is known as “sudden sniffing death,” and can happen to a typically healthy young person the first time they use inhalants. Also, using inhalants with a paper or plastic bag or in a closed-in area may cause death from suffocation.  

Can an Overdose be Treated?

An inhalant overdose can lead to seizures or cause the heart to stop. First responders and emergency room personnel try to treat the overdose by treating those conditions. All they can do is try to stop the seizure or restart the heart.

Signs of Inhalant Use—What to Look For

The 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) reported that 68% of inhalant users are under 18 years of age. Although it is declining from its high points in the 1990s, huffing is still a substantial problem. Therefore, parents of teens need to be especially watchful for the signs of huffing. Some of the signs include:

  • Chemical smells on clothing or breath
  • Slurred speech
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Appearing drunk or disoriented
  • Pain or stains on skin or clothing
  • Inattentiveness
  • Lack of coordination
  • Finding chemical-soaked rags or empty spray paint or other solvent containers

Detox for Inhalant Addiction

Inhalants change a person’s mental state by depressing the central nervous system. This causes some of the physical functions to be suppressed as well. If an individual has a psychological dependence on inhalants, their body becomes used to the feeling it had while being intoxicated. Stopping the use of inhalants causes suppressed functions to become overactive. This results in the withdrawal symptoms.

The recovery process for inhalants is no easier than with any other chemical dependency. Similar to other substances of misuse, the duration the person has been using inhalants and the frequency of usage are important factors. Frequent and long-term usage can lead to the more severe withdrawal symptoms such as seizures and psychosis. 

Withdrawal Symptoms:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Sweating
  • Sleeping problems
  • Mood changes
  • Muscle cramps
  • Headaches
  • Chills
  • Agitation
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures (in severe cases)
  • Anxiety, depression, and psychosis
  • Intense craving for inhalants

The period of withdrawal from inhalants differs from one person to the next. In this way also, the symptoms experienced can vary. Generally, inhalant withdrawal symptoms begin around 24 to 48 hours after the last use. The first symptoms that show up are physical and the worst of it is usually over in a week. 

Unfortunately, psychological symptoms such as depression or intense cravings can last for a considerably longer time. Some people say they have experienced psychological withdrawal symptoms months after they stopped using. 

Is Detox Necessary?

As you’ve seen, withdrawal from inhalants can be severely painful and life-threatening. The advantage of a detox center can’t be overstated. In a professional detox center, there is 24-hour medical supervision in case of emergencies. It is a necessary first step to becoming inhalant-free.

In detox, medical personnel is always available to prescribe medications to help ease the pain and discomfort of the withdrawal symptoms. In addition, having help with getting through withdrawal will lower the chance of relapse before going to treatment. Many people will go back to using inhalants just to end the withdrawal symptoms. During this period, a person needs all the help they can get to get through the withdrawal.

Treatment for Addiction to Inhalants

After detox, a treatment facility will provide the support necessary just as it did in detox. In treatment, the person in recovery will receive therapy that will help get to the reasons for the addiction in the first place. You’ll have an opportunity to discover why you needed to get high and learn skills to cope with your cravings and bin to understand the value of a life without drug use and an inhalant addiction.

Therapy for Addiction to Inhalants

During treatment, you will attend therapy sessions chosen by you and your counselor. Some common therapies are:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)– helps patients recognize, avoid, and cope with the situations in which they are most likely to use drugs. They learn how their negative thoughts contribute to negative behavior, whether the thoughts are true or not.
  • Motivational therapy–vouchers or small cash rewards are used as rewards for positive behaviors such as staying drug-free. 
  • Family therapy—when there is an addicted person in the family, the whole family is affected. Family therapy helps everyone learn what happened and how they can all heal.

Treatment Programs 

After detox, you will enter a treatment program. Which one you will need depends on the severity of your addiction and the length of time you have been addicted. Another consideration is the amount of support available for you when you leave the treatment facility.

Residential Treatment

In a residential treatment program, you will live at the facility in a secure, structured, drug-free environment. Medical services are available 24 hours a day. This is a good way to recover without any distractions and triggers from outside.

Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP)

A PHP is for people with enough support and stability at home to be able to go home every day after treatment. There will be structured therapy sessions to attend every day at the facility. This is a particularly good program for a person with a dual diagnosis of mental illness with an SUD.

Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP)

During an IOP you will attend therapy sessions at the treatment facility and go home afterward. It is not as intense as the PHP in terms of the number of days and hours spent at the facility. This program is a good step-down from the more intense programs for people who are not ready to leave treatment completely. This is also a good choice for people who did not have severe addiction or long-term usage.

Outpatient Counseling

This program is helpful for people who have work, school, or home commitments that can’t be missed. It’s primarily for those who don’t have a severe SUD and have support at home. However, it does carry a higher risk of relapse. In outpatient counseling, you go to counseling a few times a week and participate in support groups. It is beneficial for continuing treatment as a step-down from a more intense program. Studies show that the longer a person stays in some form of treatment, the better their chance for long-term recovery.

Don’t Wait to Get Help for Inhalant Addiction

Do you need treatment for an SUD such as inhalant addiction? Maybe it’s a loved one or someone else close to you. This is a serious disorder and carries with it the real possibility of sudden death for even a young healthy person. This is not the time to hesitate.

At Sana Lake, we understand the seriousness of substance use disorder treatment. Our staff of trained and experienced professionals has one purpose—to help you or your loved one recover and get back to a full drug-free life. Sana Lake has licensed therapists who can help the whole family recover from this experience. Contact us now. We have people available to answer your questions or just talk.

References:

www.drugfreeworld.org

www.mcgill.ca/oss/articles/

www.drugfreeworld.org/drugfacts

www.drugabuse.gov

www.medicinenet.com

Article Reviewed by David Sherman, MD

David Sherman, MDDavid Sherman, MD is a Fellow of the American Society of Addiction Medicine (FASAM) and board certified in Addiction Medicine with the American Board of Preventive Medicine. He is a native Missourian and graduated medical school at the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Medicine. Dr. Sherman completed a two-year fellowship in Addiction Medicine at the University of Florida in Gainesville. He leads a highly trained staff of master level certified addiction professionals. Men and women from all over Missouri and the United States come to Sana Lake Recovery Center to get the care they need and deserve.