Huffing glue, paint, and cleaners

Diana Zuckerman, Ph.D. and Sarah Romano

Updated 2010

Getting high by breathing in fumes from glue, paint, cleaners, and other products is a popular pastime for 10-17 year olds. Known as “huffing,” this behavior usually peaks in the eighth grade.[1] In fact, every year between 2003 and 2008, more 8th grade students said they had used inhalants than said they had used marijuana in their lifetimes.[2]

A survey sponsored by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 1999, found that sixty-two percent of surveyed teens admitted that they knew about huffing, and 26 percent said they had seen or heard about classmates who huff. On average, the kids were 12 years old when they first saw or heard about huffing.[3]

A 2009 survey, funded by the National Institutes of Health and conducted by the University of Michigan, found that 14.9% of 8th graders admitted that they had used inhalants at least once. This number has remained relatively unchanged for the past few years and is down from the mid 90’s when over 20% of 8th grade students admitted using inhalants or huffing.2 The same survey also found that youth have become less likely to think that using inhalants puts them at “great risk.” The number of students who think that huffing is dangerous has been in decline since 2001.[4] This is very worrisome because research shows that students who don’t think that inhalants are dangerous are more likely to try them.[5]

Kids who don’t understand the health risks of inhalants don’t know that huffing can kill-even on the first try. Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome is a risk for inhalant users every time they huff, and is the most common cause of death related to inhalant use. Other risks include suffocation, accidental injury, and reactions between the chemicals in the specific inhalants used and other chemicals.[6]

Even with all the risks, inhalant use may be an attractive option for young teens looking to get high. In a focus group, one 14 year old female who had used inhalants in the past commented that they are popular because they are cheap. She said kids who can’t afford drugs “use inhalants instead, so they are able to afford them.” 1 In fact, many inhalants can be found at home-in the garage or under the kitchen sink. These everyday household products are not only readily available but they are easy to hide. And the high from huffing is short, which makes young teens less likely to be caught by parents.

Thankfully for parents, there are signs to look for when kids are using inhalants. You could find a collection of potential inhalants in a child’s room or even a single potential inhalant hidden in an unusual, suspicious location–like a can of gasoline hidden under a child’s bed. Changes in behavior like apathy, loss of appetite, change of friends, or a drop in school grades can also be a result of inhalant abuse. Also children who use inhalants might have a chemical odor on their breath for several hours after use or on their clothing, especially if the product spilled.6

Huffing can cause permanent brain damage or can be lethal, making it one of the most dangerous forms of substance abuse. Unfortunately, it is popular among young children because the products are so readily available, and many parents are unaware of its dangers.

[1] Siegel JT et al.”…you would probably want to do it. Cause that’s what made them popular”: Exploring Perceptions of Inhalant Utility Among Young Adolescent Nonusers and Occasional Users. Substance Use and Misuse. 2009;44:597-615

[2] University of Michigan. Monitoring the future survey. Updated August 20, 2010. Accessed August 25, 2010

[3] Survey shows alarming statistics on huffing. American Academy of Pediatrics. 1999;15:1

[4] University of Michigan. Monitoring the future survey. Updated August 20, 2010. Accessed August 25, 2010

[5] University of Michigan. Monitoring the future survey. Updated August 20, 2010 Accessed August 25, 2010

[6] Williams JF et al. Inhalant abuse. Pediatrics. 2007;119:1009-1017