We may not think about it on a daily basis, but most of us live in homes that contain deadly substances. Paint, paint thinners, aerosol sprays, and even nail polish remover can cause serious mental and physical damage--even death--when inhaled. The chemicals found in common household products are dangerous, which is why manufacturers encourage us to open windows when we use these items and to make sure that the area is adequately ventilated.
But there’s another story when it comes to these ordinary household chemicals, and it’s called “huffing.” Huffing refers to the act of purposely inhaling these types of chemicals in order to achieve a high. This type of drug abuse can cause irreparable harm and lead to dire consequences, including a complication known as “sudden sniffing death syndrome” (SSDS).
Huffing and Teenage Drug Abuse
It’s Saturday night. John and his friends, sophomores in high school, are hanging out at John’s house while his parents are out for dinner. They left John 20 bucks to order pizza and told the kids they wouldn’t be late. John and his friends get bored. They talk about looking for a party or trying to buy some alcohol, but they’ve already spent the $20 on pizza and snacks. One of the teens suggests they try huffing. He’s done it before. He asks John if there is any hair spray or spray paint in the house. In short order, the teens head to the garage where John’s parents keep the paint. They each take turns sniffing the sprayed fumes. Within moments, one of John’s buddies drops to the garage floor. He’s unresponsive. The worst has occurred.
How Common is Huffing? Stats on SSDS
According to experts, children and teens engage in huffing more than other demographics. Kids and teens often can’t access alcohol or other drugs as easily as they can the chemicals around their homes. The fact is that inhalants are easy to obtain and legal to purchase. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that more than “21 million Americans aged 12 and older have used inhalants” to get high. In a recent study, NIDA reports that more than 13 percent of 8th graders have engaged in huffing. In addition, 22 percent of people who have died from SSDS had no prior history of inhalant abuse; they were first-time users.
What Is SSDS? Pathology
John and his friends participated in inhalant abuse, which is also referred to as “volatile substance abuse.” There are a wide array of chemicals in common inhalants that have the potential to cause immediate death. These chemicals can cause death in mere moments--and experts agree that there is no safe amount of inhalant. Inhaling poisonous chemicals can cause sudden sniffing death syndrome--a condition where the heart simply stops beating.
When someone engages in huffing, the chemicals are quickly absorbed through the lungs and released into the bloodstream where they travel to the brain and other essential organs. Although sudden sniffing death syndrome is not entirely understood, it can occur within moments after these chemicals reach the heart.
People should also note that inhalants are both physically and psychologically addictive; although, addiction is more rare in this type of drug abuse. While these substances may be less addictive than heroin, cocaine, or alcohol, they are extraordinarily dangerous-- a small amount in a just a single use can kill. Remember, a person doesn’t have to be addicted to a drug to be at risk of having a health crisis. Misusing inhalants—huffing just once—can cause sudden sniffing death syndrome.
Many parents of older children and teens are rightly concerned about the opioid crisis and prescription drug abuse-- particularly that involving drugs like stimulants, which have been popular within this demographic. What many parents may not realize is that there are readily available drugs of abuse in their own homes. Common inhalants associated with huffing include:
- Nail polish remover
- Spray paints
- Lighter fluid
- Hair sprays
- Cleaning fluids
- Paint thinner
- Whipped cream canisters
Most parents are intrinsically aware that these substances are dangerous to young children and toddlers, which is why so many invest in safety devices to keep these items away from little hands. As the huffing epidemic grows and more older kids succumb to sudden sniffing death syndrome, parents are learning that these substances pose risks for older kids and teenagers, too.
Many of the chemicals in common types of inhalants can cause a short-term high that’s similar to the feeling of intoxication when they are sniffed. This high is very short-lived, which can cause the kids to sniff more of the noxious chemicals, increasing their risk for sudden sniffing death syndrome or other serious and deadly health problems. There is no safe amount of inhalant to sniff, and a person can die from inhaling chemicals on their very first time.
Inhalant death often involves chemicals like nitrous oxide, freon, propane, butane, benzene, amyl nitrate, alkyl nitrites, butyl nitrate, methylene chloride, and toluene. These are the types of chemicals that are found in many of the products listed above. Sniffing death nitrous and other huffing death stories invariably involve these poisonous chemicals. But sudden sniffing death is not the only concern. For instance, inhaling toluene can cause brain damage, liver and kidney damage, and loss of equilibrium. Sniffing nitrous oxide can lead to blackouts, lack of oxygen in the brain, and reduce heart muscle functionality. Benzene, which is found in gasoline, can be toxic to the reproduction system and also cause an increased risk for the development of leukemia.
These chemicals are completely unsafe and should never be inhaled. Many of the health problems that huffing can trigger, such as damage to the heart and lungs, cannot be reversed. The cognitive effects from huffing can range from mild cognitive dysfunction to severe and irreversible dementia.
Links to Preexisting Conditions
SSDS can affect people who are in perfect health; however, people who have preexisting health conditions may be at increased risk. For instance, the abuse of nitrites can lead to a feeling of euphoria, but the nitrites primarily affect the heart by causing changes to the cardiovascular system. A person with a cardiovascular health condition is at increased risk for heart failure as a result of this abuse. Nitrites cause a drop in blood pressure, so people who have preexisting conditions like glaucoma, heart irregularities, or breathing difficulties are also at heightened risk.
Emergency Treatment for SSDS
A person who is completely healthy can die from sudden sniffing death syndrome in mere moments. Death can be so quick and unexpected that it occurs before another person present at the scene can reach for their phone to dial emergency services. If someone begins to have seizures after huffing, passes out, or struggles to breathe, it’s vital to contact emergency services immediately. If the heart stops, emergency technicians will attempt to restart it. The more time that lapses between the second the heart stops and the start of live-saving measures, the less likely the person’s chances of being saved.
Typically, when an individual is treated in an emergency room setting, medical caregivers will first treat the most severe symptoms of the health crisis; for instance, huffing can lead to seizures and irregular heartbeat. If serious health problems result from huffing, the individual may require ongoing medical care, depending on the nature and severity of the issues.
Treatment to Prevent Sudden Sniffing Death
A person doesn’t have to be addicted to a substance in order to need substance abuse treatment. Arguably, any person who understands the risks but still engages in the practice of huffing needs an intervention, followed by professional therapies at a trusted behavioral health provider such as FHE Health. If you’re concerned that your older child or teen is sniffing glue or other unsafe chemicals in order to get high, it’s important to intervene and put a stop to this dangerous practice. Drug abuse treatment and mental healthcare is the answer-- and may be the only effective way to save a life.