Inhalant Abuse

Inhalant Abuse

Inhalant Abuse

Inhalant abuse, also known as ‘huffing’, is very common among young people right now and very dangerous. At La Hacienda we see most of this abuse among our collegiate patients, but not to the degree we did when we had an adolescent program. Unfortunately, it is the most accessible type of drug there is. Common household products such as nail polish remover, hair spray, cleaning fluids, and whipped cream can be sniffed and inhaled in various ways. The common slang words used to reference these products are laughing gas, poppers, snappers and whippets

NIDA, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, has done extensive research on inhalant abuse. According to a report from 2009, teens make up 70% of inhalant abusers and most of that abuse occurs between 8th and 12th grades. What is interesting is that marijuana and inhalants are abused almost equally in 8th grade, but by the 10th and 12th grades, marijuana slowly becomes the chosen drug to abuse because it becomes more accessible. However, there is good news from this research. Inhalant abuse was at its peak in the 90’s but by 2009 had significantly decreased and has maintained at that level.1

Some of the early warning signs include dazed appearance, chemical smell from breath and/or clothing, sores around the mouth and loss of appetite. The bottom line–you can die instantly from asphyxiation, suffocation and seizures. If you don’t die, inhalants can cause irreversible damage to your body and your brain. Cognitive functions can be affected and lead to dementia and significant damage can be done to the heart, liver and kidneys. Although organ damage and some of the nervous system syndromes can be reversible if the abuse stops, most of the impairment is not. The chemicals can remain in fat cells in the body for weeks which causes the effects of the drugs to continue. Detoxification is recommended because of the slow release of these toxic chemicals. It should also be done before testing cognitive skills, to see the extent of damage done to the body, and before the patient engages in an actual treatment program.

What should you suggest if one of your patients finds their child unconscious? Stay calm and call 911. Suggest they try to look around for a can, rag or bag to identify what product was being abused and to let the healthcare professionals know. They should not leave the child alone; if conscious, the child should be kept in a calm, well-ventilated area.

It is important to talk to parents and teens before inhalants are introduced to middle schoolers. You should know the facts: what can be abused, how, and the terms that they use. Additional help for clients is available through drug abuse treatment centers, teen drug abuse programs and school counselors. Communication, boundaries and knowledge are the keys to fighting inhalant abuse.


  1. Institute for Social Research. Monitoring the Future, 2009 (Study Results). Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, 2010. Data retrieved 2/12/12 from