Huffing involves soaking a rag in chemicals, placing the rag inside or over the mouth, and inhaling the chemical fumes. It’s one of several ways inhalants are used.
Other methods of huffing include putting a chemically soaked rag in a container, such as a toilet paper roll, and breathing through the container. The term huffing is sometimes used more generally to refer to breathing the fumes of inhalants through the mouth.
Inhalant abuse causes serious short- and long-term side effects. Huffing can cause unique risks, and health providers have limited methods of treating side effects of substances that have been huffed.
Almost any chemical in liquid or gas form can be huffed. If a rag can be soaked in the chemical or if a cloth can be sprayed with the chemical, a person can huff it. Household cleaning products are commonly huffed because of their accessibility.
Children may be more likely to huff substances they have access to. Felt-tip pens or markers, gasoline, lighter fluid, spray paint and glue are among the most commonly abused inhalants by people ages 12 to 17, according to the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
Other commonly huffed substances include:
Collections of these substances or cloths that smell like these substances may be warning signs for inhalant abuse. Each substance can cause serious health problems, and no substance is considered safe to huff.
Inhalants deprive the body of oxygen. Because the brain is unable to function without oxygen, people who huff inhalants feel dizzy and lose coordination. They also experience a head rush, which characterizes the inhalant high.
Huffing paint, glue, gasoline or other chemicals is dangerous because the substances contain poisons. The body’s natural reaction is to cough or vomit. If a rag is in the mouth or blocking the mouth, the person can asphyxiate or suffocate.
Suffocation occurs when the lungs are unable to receive oxygen, and asphyxiation occurs when oxygen is displaced by the inhaled fumes. The person can pass out, enter a coma and suffer permanent brain damage, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Other short-term risks of huffing include damaging the tongue, mouth and throat. Huffing can also cause serious accidents, seizures or sudden sniffing death syndrome.
Huffing any inhalant once can lead to long-term health problems, such as brain damage or death. Repeated use increases the risk of damage to several organs in the body, including the ears, kidney, liver and heart.
The pleasurable effects of inhalants are primarily caused by oxygen deprivation. Unlike many other addictive drugs, inhalants don’t manipulate the pleasure center of the brain. But inhalants can cause drug addiction.
In addition to the euphoric effects of oxygen deprivation, huffed chemicals also enter the bloodstream and cause depressant effects, according to a 2009 article in the Journal of Emergency Medical Services.
The kidneys and liver are responsible for removing the chemicals in inhalants from the body. Repeated exposure to the substances damages the kidneys and liver, impairing the way the organs function. The chemicals also cause muscle weakness and lung inflammation.
If someone experiences harmful side effects after huffing inhalants, call 911 immediately. First responders can’t reverse the effects of inhalants, but they can provide supportive care and relieve some symptoms.
One of the primary treatments for side effects of huffing is supplying oxygen. This removes some toxins from the lungs. Health professionals can also refer people to substance abuse treatment services if they have trouble abstaining from huffing.
Rehab for inhalant abuse teaches people healthy ways to have fun or relieve stress. During rehab, people learn to avoid and cope with triggers and cravings that may lead to relapse. They also learn how to live happy and productive lives.
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