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Inhalant abuse: What parents should know

What is inhalant abuse?

Inhalant or solvent abuse is when someone intentionally breathes in or sniffs common toxic substances (chemicals) to get a high. It is also called huffing and bagging.

Compared with other kinds of drug abuse, inhalant abuse sometimes affects younger children because the products are common legal, cheap and easy to find.

What are some examples of inhalants?

The most commonly used substances are: gasoline, paint, propane/butane, air fresheners, and formalin (found in disinfectants).

Commonly abused inhalants

Found in May contain Other terms (slang)
Hair spray, air fresheners, deodorant Butane, propose, fluorocarbons Medusa, moon gas, poor man’s pot, air blast, discorama, hippie crack, chroming, glad, whiteout
Fuels, including cigarette lighters Gasoline, propane, benzene, butane
Paint/polish removers, paint thinner, felt-tip markers, correction fluid, glues and rubber cements Trichlorethane, trichloroethylene, toluene, hexane, acetone, methylene chloride, ethyl acetate
Varnish, lacquers, resins, lacquer thinner Benzene, xylene
Dry cleaning fluids, spot removers, degreasers Trichloroethane, tetrachloroethylene, xylene
Computer/electronics cleaning spray (duster) Dimethyl ether, hydrofluorcarbons, hydrocarbons
Vegetable oil cooking spray Hydrocarbons
Medical anesthetics Diethyl ether, halothane, enflurane, ethyl chloride
Whipped cream aerosols, helium tanks, anaesthetics Nitrous oxide Laughing gas, shoot the breeze, whippets, buzz bomb
Angina medication, room deodourizers, VCR cleaner, other synthesized products Amyl nitrates, butyle nitrites, cyclohexyl nitrite, isopropyl nitrite, other nitrites Medusa, moon gas, pearls, boppers, snappers, poppers, amys, bolt, quicksilver, rush, climax, aroma of men, hardware, locker room, thrust

How are inhalants abused?

Some of the common terms for inhalant abuse refer to the way or the type of products that are used:

  • Sniffing: directly inhaling the fumes through the nose.
  • Snorting: through the mouth.
  • Bagging: from a plastic or paper bag.
  • Huffing: from a rag or cloth soaked in the substance and held over the mouth or nose.
  • Glading: inhaling air-freshener aerosols.
  • Dusting: directly spraying aerosols into the nose or mouth.

What happens when someone uses an inhalant?

When a person uses an inhalant, large amounts of toxic chemicals enter the lungs. These chemicals pass from the bloodstream into the brain where they can damage and kill brain cells.

Inhalants can kill, even the first time someone uses them. A person can stop breathing because of lack of oxygen or suffocate, especially if using a plastic bag. Inhalants can cause the heart to beat very fast and irregularly and then suddenly stop beating (cardiac arrest).

There is no way to predict how much of an inhalant will kill a person. Someone could use a certain amount one time and seem fine, but the next use could cause death.

The effects of inhalants usually last only a few minutes, unless a person keeps inhaling over and over. At first, inhalants have a stimulating effect. A person may feel dazed, dizzy and have trouble walking.

Inhaling can cause headaches, nausea and vomiting. Users can be moody and aggressive or think that they see things that are not there. Stronger chemicals or repeated inhaling can cause people to pass out.

Over time, inhalants can cause serious and permanent damage to vital organs like the brain, kidneys, heart and liver.

Inhalants exit the body mainly through exhaling. Someone who is using inhalants often has breath that smells like chemicals. Inhalants also pass out of the body through urine. It can take as long as two weeks for the body to get rid of all the chemicals.

What are the warning signs?

Someone who is using inhalants may show all or some of the following warning signs:

  • Looking or acting drunk, dazed, or dizzy.
  • Slurred or confused speech.
  • Trouble walking, off-balance or uncoordinated.
  • Red or runny eyes and nose, nosebleeds.
  • “Huffer’s rash,” spots and/or sores around the mouth.
  • Breath that smells like chemicals.
  • Stains, paint, glitter and/or chemical smell on skin or clothing
  • Nausea and/or loss of appetite.
  • Confusion, moodiness, irritability.
  • Many absences from school or work.

What can parents do?

  • Know which products can be dangerous.
  • Know the slang words used to describe inhaling.
  • Know the warning signs and behaviours to watch for.
  • Be open and talk to your children about danger of inhalants.

If you think your child or teen is using inhalants, talk to a health professional.

For more information on inhalant abuse contact:

Reviewed by the following CPS committees:
First Nations, Inuit and Métis Health Committee

Last Updated: September 2010