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Dangers of Huffing

Stephanie Suesan Smith, Ph.D.
Boy Huffing

Huffing is the intentional breathing in of the fumes from a substance in order to alter one's consciousness, or to "get high." Huffing is a dangerous action that has a variety of short and long term effects to the huffer. Some of these effects are evident even years after a person has stopped huffing.

Substances Used

Inhalant abusers use almost any substance that has fumes that produce a high. Solvents are inhaled from their container, a soaked rag, or a bag, depending on the substance (Anderson & Loomis, 2003). There are generally three classes of inhaled substances:

  • Volatile solvents and anesthetics
  • Nitrous oxides
  • Alkyl nitrates

Volatile solvents and anesthetics comprise chemicals like toluene and TCE, gasoline, halothane and methoxyflurane. These are usually placed on a cloth or in a paper bag for inhalation. The effects of all of these compounds are similar.

Nitrous oxide is obtained from whipped cream dispensers. The abused nitrates are amyl nitrate and related alkyl nitrates, sold as room odorizers (Jones & Balster, 1993).

Huffing Hazards

Huffing has both short-term and long term effects on the body. These range from mild to life-threatening.

Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome

The most serious danger from huffing is sudden sniffing death syndrome. While the precise mechanism of death is unknown, it is assumed that the combination of heart arrhythmias and exercise may put too much strain on the heart and it stops. Others feel the asphyxia caused by substances that rob oxygen from the lungs combines with heart arrhythmias to cause death. This problem can occur the first time someone huffs (Anderson & Loomis, 2003, Flanagan, Ruprah, Meredith, & Ramsey, 1990, Jones & Balster, 1993).

Central Nervous System Damage

Huffing for very long causes central nervous system damage. It can cause cognitive difficulties, memory problems, and problems learning new material. It can also cause paralysis due to damage to the central nervous system.

The longer one huffs, the greater the possibility of central nervous system damage (Anderson & Loomis, 2003, Flanagan, Ruprah, Meredith, & Ramsey, 1990, Sharp & Brehm, 1977, Verghese, 1996).

Damage to Fetuses

Huffing while pregnant has been shown to cause abnormalities in the fetus. These primarily occur in the central nervous system and the brain. Some of these the baby while grow out of but some of them they do not. The damage is permanent (Anderson & Loomis, 2003).

Other Effects of Huffing

Huffing can cause many other effects, some of which are short term and some of which are long term. The short term effects are:

  • Euphoria
  • Addiction
  • Disinhibition
  • Hallucinations
  • Tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
  • Unsteadiness on the feet
  • Confusion
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Blood pooling in the legs and arms

The long term effects are:

  • Peripheral neuropathy (loss of feeling in the hands and feet)
  • Damage to the heart
  • Damage to the liver
  • Damage to the kidneys
  • Damage to the lungs

Huffing is a very dangerous activity. It is not uncommon for inhalant users to die from sudden sniffing death syndrome or asphyxia. Even first time users are at risk, which is disturbing given that 17% of adolescents 12 to 17 have used inhalants at least once (Jones & Balster, 1993).

Who Huffs

Huffing is often the first drug used by preteens ( Sharp & Brehm, 1977). Approximately 17% of adolescents in the United States have inhaled at least once in their lives (Jones & Balster, 1993). Approximately 0.4% of adolescents 12 to 17 meet the DSM-IV criteria for inhalant abuse or dependence (Wu, Pilowsky, & Schlenger, 2004).

Inhalant abuse affect adolescents regardless of gender, age, race/ethnicity, and family income. However, inhalant abusers were more likely to come from broken homes, be poor, engage in delinquent behavior, and do poorly in school (Sharp, Beauvais, & Spence (Eds.), 1992, Wu, Pilowsky, & Schlenger, 2004). Huffing is more dangerous than most people realize and should not be taken lightly.


Anderson, C.E., Loomis, G.A. (2003). Recognition and prevention of inhalant abuse. American Family Physician, 68(5), pgs. 869-874.

Flanagan, R.J., Ruprah, M., Meredith, J.J., & Ramsey, J.D. (September, 1990). An introduction to the clinical toxicology of volatile substances. Drug Safety, 5(5), pgs. 359-383.

Jones, H. & Balster, R. (March, 1993). Inhalant use in pregnancy. Obstetrics and Gynecology Clinics of North America, 25(1), pgs. 153-167.

Sharp, C.W., Beauvais, F. & Spence, R. (Eds.), (1992). Inhalant Abuse: A Volatile Research Agenda. NIDA Research Monograph 129. National Institute of Drugs and Alcohol.

Sharp, C.W. & Brehm, M.L. (October, 1997). Review of Inhalants: Euphoria to Dysfunction. NIDA Research Monograph 15. National Institute of Drugs and Alcohol.

Verghese, M. (1996). Medical complications of glue sniffing. Southern Medical Journal, 89(5), pgs. 455-462.

Wu, L., Pilowsky, D., & Schlenger, W. (October, 2004). Inhalant abuse and dependence among adolescents in the United States. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 43(10), pgs. 1206-1214.

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Dangers of Huffing