Inhalant Abuse

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Harvard Medical School
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Inhalant Abuse

Mental Health
Injury and Illness Prevention
Inhalant Abuse
Inhalant Abuse
Know about inhalant abuse to help keep your child safe.
InteliHealth Medical Content
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Inhalant Abuse

All parents should know about inhalants (gases and vapors from common household products) that are intentionally inhaled. Although these products are used as "drugs," they are dangerous poisons that can cause serious injury throughout the body, and even death, when inhaled. Inhalant abuse is still a big problem in children and adolescents. Studies have shown that inhalant abuse is rising in female adolescents. Nearly one of every five adolescents now reports having used inhalants at least once. The use of inhalants peaks around age 14 to 15 years (seventh through ninth grades), but may be seen in children as young as 6 to 8 years old. Parents should teach their children about the dangers of inhalants, as well as alcohol, tobacco and other drugs, at an early age.

Inhalants are poisonous gases and vapors that are released into the air from aerosol (spray) cans, fuels, solvents and solvent-based products. Inhalant abuse is also known as huffing or sniffing. Inhalants are popular because they can be found readily throughout the house, and therefore are easy to get. In addition, many adults do not know about inhalants and may not suspect they are being abused.

Examples of these products include:

  • Cooking spray
  • Disinfectants
  • Felt-tip markers
  • Furniture polish and wax
  • Air fresheners
  • Spray deodorants
  • Hair spray
  • Nail-polish removers
  • Butane (found in cigarette lighters)
  • Gasoline
  • Glues, such as model-airplane glue and contact cement
  • Paints and paint thinners
  • Spray paints

Breathing gases and vapors from these products can cause permanent brain, nerve, kidney and liver damage. Chronic inhalant abuse is associated with school failure, behavior problems, withdrawal symptoms and abuse of other substances. Use of inhalants, even one time, can result in death from suffocation, choking, accidents or heart attacks (sudden sniffing death syndrome).

Some signs of possible inhalant abuse include:

  • Finding empty product containers in your child’s room or anywhere in the house
  • Unusual, strong odors on your child's breath or clothing
  • Paint or stains on his body or clothing
  • Rash on the face or blisters/sores around the nose and/or mouth without a good explanation
  • Red or watery eyes and large pupils
  • Frequent runny nose, sniffling, coughing
  • Loss of appetite, tiredness, nausea

The best way to prevent inhalant abuse is to talk with your children about the dangers of these types of products. Make it clear that inhalants are poisons. Let them know that even one-time use can be deadly. If possible, do not buy solvent-based products or products in spray cans that can be abused easily. Instead buy water-based versions or products in non-aerosol “pump” spray bottles. If solvent-based products are used in the home, keep them locked away and out of the sight and reach of children.

For more information:

National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information
(800) 729-6686

National Institute on Drug Abuse

32842, 32845, 32855, 34979,
Last updated August 19, 2014

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