What You Need to Know About Inhalants and Huffing

Markers, glue, spray paint, and even helium balloons—these normal household items look harmless enough, especially when they are used as intended. But sometimes kids inhale them to get high. This practice, often called huffing, can be lethal.

"Sudden sniffing death" occurs when the heart stops pumping after someone has used an inhalant. Huffing can also cause other severe health consequences like permanent brain damage and destruction of the heart, kidneys, and liver.

Often young people view inhaling or huffing household substances as a way to get a quick high. This can be especially true for young kids who are not driving and have limited access to drugs. Teens also might huff as part of a dare, because they are curious about the experience, or if they are bored.

According to the National Poison Control Center, 20% of eighth-graders admit to abusing inhalants. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 8.5% of students between the ages of 12 and 17 have used inhalants at least once in their lifetime.

As a parent, it is important that you know what huffing is, the signs of inhalant use, the most common items used for huffing, and the potential consequences. Learn what to do if you find your child is experimenting with inhalants.

How Huffing Works

Inhalants are legal, everyday household items that kids can easily access, like markers, glue, and hairspray. These substances are harmless when used as intended. But when the vapors from these products are intentionally inhaled, they can produce a high. They can also become toxic and even deadly.

There are a variety of different approaches or methods for huffing, depending on the inhalant, the container it comes in, and personal preference. Some inhalants are inhaled directly from the container. Others might be inhaled from a rag or glove that is soaked with the substance.

Sometimes teens put inhalants into a paper or plastic bag or balloon and breathe them in. Other times they may spray the inhalant directly into the mouth.

Huffing or inhaling certain substances can cause a quick high because they are absorbed quickly through the lungs and into the bloodstream to the brain. The person huffing experiences a rapid, but very short-lived, intoxication.

Signs of Huffing

Because inhalants are easily accessible, inexpensive, and easy to hide, they can be attractive to young people looking to get high. But huffing is also extremely dangerous and highly addictive, so it's important to recognize the signs that a teen is huffing.

While it is generally easy to hide the use of inhalants, there are some things to watch for. For instance, if you notice that there are large quantities of household products missing or if your teen is going through household items like hairspray, nail polish remover, or spray deodorant quickly, you may want to investigate further.

You also should be concerned if you find a stash of plastic bags, lots of empty containers, or smelly rags or gloves in the house. Other common signs of huffing include facial rashes, chronic sore throat or mouth, and a chemical odor on their breath or clothes.

Other drug use warning signs can be an indication that your child is abusing inhalants. These include changes in behavior, eating habits, sleep habits, and hygiene. Kids who are using inhalants or other drugs may start hanging out with different friends, struggle in school, or skip classes.

Symptoms of Huffing

Because the high from huffing is so short-lived, it can be hard to determine if your child is using inhalants. Symptoms of inhalant use may include:

  • Slurring words
  • Acting drunk, dizzy, or dazed
  • Having an unusual breath odor
  • Smelling like chemicals
  • Having red eyes or a runny nose
  • Getting paint or marker stains on face or clothing
  • Having spots or sores around the mouth
  • Displaying nausea or loss of appetite
  • Acting anxious, excitable, irritable, or restless

Types of Inhalants Kids Might Use

There are more than 1,000 different substances that may be used for huffing. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), the most commonly abused products include glue, nail polish remover, markers, paint thinner, spray paint, butane lighter fluid, gasoline, propane gas, household cleaners, cooking sprays, deodorants, fabric protectors, and whipping cream aerosols.

Markers

Colored Sharpies

RSMcLeod / Getty Images

Even though permanent markers are mostly harmless, they can be used in a dangerous way. Items like markers, correction fluid, and glue are commonly found in many homes. These all contain volatile solvents—substances that vaporize in the air. Because of this property, they can be inhaled or huffed.

Lighters

Close-Up Of Colorful Cigarette Lighters On Table

Chanayut Sansri / EyeEm / Getty Images

Your teen may have a lighter for lighting candles or starting a campfire, but they can also be used for huffing. Lighter fluid is also a volatile solvent. Lighter fluid can be inhaled or huffed for a quick—and dangerous—high.

Butane

lighter

Rizky Panuntun / Getty Images

Butane is a highly flammable and toxic gas that can also cause a high if inhaled. It is often found in lighters, but is used in other products as well, such as aerosol sprays, lighter refill cartridges, and cartridges for portable stoves.

Butane can be liquified, but vaporizes at room temperature. It is the vapor that is inhaled. This is very dangerous, potentially causing serious health problems like seizures, heart issues, or even death, which is called fatal butane toxicity.

Nitrous Oxide

Cream chargers in a box.

annick vanderschelden photography / Getty Images

Nitrous oxide is found in whipped cream containers, small metal canisters used in refillable whipped cream canisters, and has been used as a mild medical anesthetic ("laughing gas"). Nitrous oxide use is common among kids who use inhalants.

Sometimes whipped cream containers are discharged upright, allowing the gas to escape and be inhaled. Small containers of nitrous oxide are often referred to as "whippets" (or "whip-its"). The gas is inhaled using a balloon or directly from the whippet.

Spray Cans

box of spray cans

shank_ali / Getty Images

Spray paint, hair spray, vegetable oil sprays, and other spray cans can be used to huff. The propellant is what pushes the product out of the can. That propellant that can cause a high when inhaled.

Gasoline

red gasoline container

Martin Diebel / Verywell

Gasoline is another volatile solvent that becomes a gas when air hits it. The fumes from the gas, when inhaled deeply over a short period of time, can cause a high.

Amyl Nitrate

A sexual "enhancer" Amyl Nitrate Poppers
Wikimedia

Ever heard of poppers? Amyl nitrate is commonly found in small containers with the words "room odorizer," "video head cleaner" or "liquid aroma." These are often called "poppers." Amyl nitrate is inhaled, and is sometimes used as a sexual "enhancer."

Compressed Air

computer duster

jfmdesign / Getty Images

Canisters of compressed air might be sold as computer dusters and keyboard cleaners. They are easily found at any office supply store. They are also used for huffing. If your teen is going through multiple cans of compressed air, it might not be because they are keeping their computer clean. The duster is often inhaled directly from the can to cause a high.

Consequences of Huffing

Fumes and gases in everyday substances and products can be extremely dangerous and even deadly when inhaled on purpose. This also can be a highly addictive habit. Because the effects of huffing only last a few minutes, many people have the urge to sniff, inhale, or huff a substance over and over again.

People who use inhalants also can suffer from withdrawal if they do not continue huffing. And long-term users can permanently lose the ability to perform everyday functions like walking and talking.

The physical dangers of huffing are many, including kidney problems, memory loss, liver damage, lung damage, problems with attention, weight loss, muscle weakness, lack of coordination, irritability, and depression.

Because inhalants cut off oxygen to the brain, they also can damage a young person's ability to think clearly. Worse, when their body is starved of oxygen, their heart may beat rapidly and irregularly to the point that it may stop pumping blood at all. The end result is heart failure.

It also is not uncommon for people using inhalants to vomit and then choke on their vomit. Kids using inhalants also can suffocate—especially if they are vomiting or using a plastic bag to huff. Some may even experience seizures. They also may lose their hearing and sense of smell as well as be at increased risk for cancer.

Inhalant use also impacts everyday life. Research shows that adolescents who engage in inhalant use are at an increased risk of delinquency, depression, suicidal thoughts, and drug and alcohol use.

What Parents Can Do

When kids abuse inhalants, they are breathing in poisons that go immediately to their bloodstream. This can affect the brain, heart, lungs, and other important organs. The impact can be short-term, but it also has the potential to cause permanent damage or even death.

It is vital to keep talking with your kids about the dangers of drug and inhalant use. The best defense against substance use is honest and open conversations about the risks involved and why trying huffing even once could be deadly.

You also may want to keep track of the inhalants in your home, just as you would over-the-counter and prescription medications. Ask yourself if they are being used up too quickly. You may even want to consider keeping items like gasoline, propane tanks, and spray paint in a locked cabinet.

If you happen to catch your child huffing, it is important to take a deep breath, remain calm, and do not yell or get upset. You also need to keep your child calm. When a person is high on inhalants, stress can cause the heart to stop. Call poison control at 1-800-222-1222. If your child is not breathing, won't wake up, or is having a seizure, call 911.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

A Word From Verywell

Inhalant abuse is a potentially deadly habit that can tempt young people because of its low cost and easy accessibility. It's important for parents to know how to spot inhalant use and to have ongoing conversations with their kids about the risks.

If you suspect your child is experimenting with huffing—or being pressured to do so by their peers—you may want to step up your intervention efforts and get the help of your pediatrician or a mental health professional. Early intervention and prevention of huffing can have a huge impact—and potentially save your child's life.

Was this page helpful?
12 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The truth about inhalants: Tips for teens.

  2. Consumer Product Safety Commission. A parent's guide to preventing inhalant abuse.

  3. National Poison Control Center. Parents: Know about inhalant abuse.

  4. National Institute on Drug Abuse. National Survey of Drug Use and Health.

  5. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Board. Understanding adolescent inhalant use.

  6. Jain R, Verma A. Laboratory approach for diagnosis of toluene-based inhalant abuse in a clinical setting. J Pharm Bioallied Sci. 2016;8(1):18-22. doi:10.4103/0975-7406.164293

  7. Sen A, Erdivanli B. Cardiac arrest following butane inhalation. Anesth Essays Res. 2015;9(2):273-5. doi:10.4103/0259-1162.156366

  8. Almulhim KN. Fatal butane toxicity and delayed onset of refractory ventricular fibrillationSaudi Med J. 2017;38(12):1250-1254. doi:10.15537/smj.2017.12.20811

  9. Garland EL, Howard MO, Perron BE. Nitrous oxide inhalation among adolescents: prevalence, correlates, and co-occurrence with volatile solvent inhalationJ Psychoactive Drugs. 2009;41(4):337‐347. doi:10.1080/02791072.2009.10399771

  10. Rewbury R, Hughes E, Purbrick R, Prior S, Baron M. Poppers: legal highs with questionable contents? A case series of poppers maculopathy. Br J Ophthalmol. 2017;101(11):1530-1534. doi:10.1136/bjophthalmol-2016-310023

  11. Forrester MB. Computer and electronic duster spray inhalation (huffing) injuries managed at emergency departments. Am J Drug Alcohol Abuse. 2020;46(2):180-183. doi:10.1080/00952990.2019.1657880

  12. Howard MO, Bowen SE, Garland EL, Perron BE, Vaughn MG. Inhalant use and inhalant use disorders in the United StatesAddict Sci Clin Pract. 2011;6(1):18‐31.