What Is Huffing?
Inhaling, or huffing, chemicals such as gasoline, paint thinner and adhesives containing toluene and benzene produces a high similar to alcohol intoxication — loss of inhibition, slurred speech, euphoria, dizziness and disorientation. Most inhalants are central nervous system depressants that are addicting physically and psychologically. Long-term users attempting to abstain from inhalant use will suffer withdrawal symptoms just like drug and alcohol addicts. Entering a medical detoxification program is essential for treating an addiction to toluene and benzene.
Why is Huffing Dangerous?
Huffing addicts don’t just simply sniff glue, gasoline or volatile hydrocarbons contained in aerosol products. Instead, they saturate plastic baggies or cloths with the inhalant and huff the substance into their lungs. Huffing involves inhaling the gases deeply and rapidly without allowing any oxygen to enter the lungs. Absorption of chemicals into the bloodstream is immediate. Physical and cognitive effects of huffing can last up to several hours, depending on the type of inhalant and concentration level of the inhalant.
Paint is one of the most common substances involved with inhalant abuse. Users often spray paint into a bag to concentrate the fumes, which they then breathe deeply to achieve a euphoric state. This is caused by one of the most common additives to spray paint: toluene. Users describe a toluene high as being very intense but short-lived. This encourages them to quickly huff more paint, increasing their exposure and the health risks of huffing toluene.
How Common Is Huffing?
Huffing paint and other aromatic toxins is unfortunately fairly common in the United States. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that around 9% of people over age 12 have huffed inhalants at some point in their lives. Use seems to peak in the teen years, with 2.7% of people between the ages of 12 and 17 reporting use in the last year and 0.7% reporting use in the last month. By comparison, the equivalent rates of use for people over age 26 are 0.4% and 0.1%, respectively.
The high rate of inhalant abuse among teenagers probably has several causes. The common availability of spray paint, solvents, gasoline and other volatile chemicals makes huffing one of the more accessible forms of substance abuse for teenagers, who might have difficulty getting more exotic drugs. The high rate of teen abuse, relative to the adult population, could also be a statistical effect of inhalants’ destructive and often lethal effects.
Dangers of Huffing Paint
The toluene high associated with huffing paint comes at a cost. According to the EPA, toluene attacks the human nervous system and may cause permanent damage in a single exposure. This damage can require extensive neurological therapy to manage its effects. Heavy use tends to cause dizziness, narcosis, fatigue and confusion that can last minutes or hours. Other effects include irritation of the upper respiratory tract and clinical depression. It’s not known for certain how likely toluene abuse is to cause cancer, but there’s believed to be a connection between huffing paint or solvents and long-term leukemia risk.
Women and girls who huff paint can develop disorders of the reproductive system. Off-cycle menstrual bleeding and irregular or heavy periods are common effects among young women who regularly abuse inhalants such as toluene and benzene. The EPA has also noted minor deformation of the head, face and limbs of children whose mothers were exposed to toluene during pregnancy.
What Is Toluene?
A solvent meant to increase octane ratings in gasoline and used to make benzene, toluene acts as a central nervous system depressant and neurotoxin when concentrated fumes are inhaled. Toluene is also found in paint, adhesives (airplane glue), cleaning agents and fragrances.
In the brain, toluene interacts with dopamine, glycine and GABA to produce feelings of sedation, disorientation and euphoria.
Physical Effects of Toluene Abuse
Toluene disrupts normal functioning of the cardiovascular and gastrointestinal system by destabilizing the heart’s electrical activity, irritating the stomach and intestinal lining and potentially causing liver failure. In addition, toluene destroys hemoglobin in the bloodstream, which is necessary for transporting oxygen and iron throughout the body. Long-term paint, gasoline and glue huffers will develop serious health problems such as anemia, breakdown of muscle due to a potassium deficiency, jaundice, hearing loss and tachycardia (rapid heartbeat).
Chronic toluene abuse can also cause a serious neurological disorder called toluene leukoencephalopathy, a type of dementia that is irreversible. In addition, inhalant addicts have suffocated to death by filling their lungs with toxic gases that displace oxygen and prevent air sacs from functioning properly. MRI brain scans of inhalant addicts have shown that sniffing glue containing toluene causes irreversible brain atrophy after inhaling it regularly for six months.
What Is Benzene?
A widely used chemical in the US and worldwide, benzene is primarily used as a starting agent to make rubbers, plastics, detergents, lubricants, dyes and pesticides. Benzene is also released into the atmosphere by gasoline-fueled automobiles and burning oil and coal.
Benzene is a known carcinogen and has been clinically linked to causing leukemia and other blood cell cancers. Benzene is not technically considered a CNS depressant, but it can produce drowsiness, dizziness, euphoria and rapid heart rate when large amounts are inhaled within a short period.
Physical Effects of Benzene Abuse
Huffing products that emit benzene fumes causes drowsiness, dizziness, severe headaches, muscle tremors, confusion, hallucinations and unconsciousness. Long-term exposure to benzene also harms bone marrow, where new blood cells are made. This can result in:
- Anemia (low red blood cell count)
- A low white blood cell count that can lower the body’s ability to fight serious infections
- A low blood platelet count that promotes excess bruising and bleeding
Women who regularly huff high levels of benzene for extended periods may experience irregular menstrual periods, ovarian damage and permanent infertility.
Cheap and Deadly — Inhaling Gasoline to Get High
Gasoline is full of hydrocarbons like benzene that produce an alcohol-like intoxication by disrupting neurochemical processes in the brain. Powerful enough to cause hallucinations, nose bleeds, vomiting and coma, gasoline is a cheap high that is easily accessible and a viable alternative to drug addicts who cannot afford their drug of choice.
Is Huffing Toluene and Benzene Addictive?
Yes, both chemicals are physically and psychological addicting due to their disruption of the brain’s reward pathways, specifically the nucleus accumbens and ventral tegmental areas. Like cocaine, toluene and benzene stimulate dopamine release in both areas. Excess dopamine overactivates the reward pathway and leads to the brain craving repeated huffing highs. Like other addictive drugs, huffers will develop a tolerance to products containing toluene and benzene that forces them to huff higher concentrations of paint, gasoline or glue to achieve the kind of high they crave.
Does a Huffing Addict Need to Detoxify Before Entering a Treatment Program?
Detoxification prior to beginning addiction treatment is essential for stabilizing a person’s physical health and determining if there are existing mental illnesses that need to be addressed during treatment.
It is much easier for the brain and body to adjust to becoming addicted than to adjust to abstinence. Withdrawing from an addiction to products containing toluene and benzene may cause symptoms similar to those of alcohol withdrawal. They include:
- Extreme restlessness/agitation/irritability
- Sweating/chills/clammy skin
- Joint/body aches
- Nausea/vomiting/appetite loss
- Rapid heart rate
Detoxifying under medical supervision is strongly recommended for inhalant addicts. Withdrawal symptoms could lead to shock or organ failure, requiring emergency treatment. A person’s vitals are constantly monitored while undergoing detoxification from inhalants, and appropriate medications are prescribed to relieve withdrawal symptoms.
Getting Help for An Inhalant Addiction
The high risk of a huffing addict suffering sudden sniffing death syndrome from abusing inhalants makes an immediate intervention for someone addicted to inhalants absolutely essential. Sudden sniffing death syndrome involves the interaction of cardiac arrhythmia, respiratory depression and anoxia produced by huffing, causing cardiac arrest and death. Instances of people experiencing sudden sniffing death syndrome during their first attempt at getting high from inhalants is not uncommon.
Treatment for chronic inhalant abusers begins with detoxification, as well as physical and mental assessments by FHE addiction psychiatrists and physicians. Because neurological toxicity remains the primary side effect of inhaling substances containing toluene and hydrocarbons, patients may have magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) tests done to see how much damage has been done to the brain. In addition, blood tests assessing calcium, electrolyte and phosphorous levels may be indicated, along with profiles of kidney and liver functioning as well as heart muscle analysis. A urine test is also necessary to detect the possible presence of other drugs in the patient’s system.
Inhalant abusers are given counseling, psychotherapy, appropriate medications and group therapy to address their addiction to toluene and benzene. Antidepressants may help patients with co-occurring diagnoses of depression and anxiety cope successfully with the recovery process, while tools provided by our therapists can teach patients how to deal with stress, anger and other emotional issues that often promote the use of inhalants and other addictive substances.