What is Huffing?

Michael Pollick

Huffing is the deliberate inhalation of toxic gases, vapors, or fumes in order to become intoxicated, possibly to the point of unconsciousness. Many individuals who do this will spray aerosol chemicals, such as enamel paint or solvents, into a paper bag and then inhale the vapors through their noses and mouths. The vaporized intoxicants reach the person's lungs, an area rich in capillaries. Once the chemicals enter the bloodstream, the effect is believed to be similar to an intravenous drug injection or a nasal snort. The effects of huffing can range from mild inebriation or euphoria to vivid hallucinations or even unconsciousness. Different kinds of chemical compounds found in inhalants create different kinds of "highs" for the user.

A man huffing paint through a paper bag.
A man huffing paint through a paper bag.

One of the difficulties with inhalant abuse is the lack of legal control over the chemical intoxicants themselves. Gasoline, butane, nitrous oxide, paint thinners and hobby glues, for example, are all considered legal substances and can be readily obtained through legitimate outlets. Someone can purchase a can of gasoline from a service station and then soak the liquid on a rag in order to concentrate the intoxicating vapors. Gold or silver spray paint can be found in most hardware or department stores. Cigarette lighters containing butane gas are also legally available to most adults, and an abuser can breathe in the raw fumes to the point of intoxication.

Gasoline is one example of a chemical intoxicant.
Gasoline is one example of a chemical intoxicant.

Even something as seemingly harmless as a pressurized can of whipped cream can be abused. Many aerosol-powered food and personal hygiene products contain nitrous oxide, a gas that can be used by dentists as an anesthetic. The huffer will modify the dispenser in order to release the nitrous oxide into his or her lungs. Some substance abusers will even obtain canisters of nitrous oxide illegally and breathe the vapors contained in a facial mask. One of the inherent dangers of huffing is a loss of oxygen (hypoxia) caused when the inhaled gas is not mixed or replaced with oxygen or fresh air.

Some people have been known to inhale glue to get high.
Some people have been known to inhale glue to get high.

Because other substances contained in the inhalants can be highly toxic, people who abuse inhalants may also experience serious kidney and liver damage, along with chemical pneumonia and permanent respiratory failure. Individuals may also perform dangerous acts while under the influence of an inhaled substance, and many chronic huffers are ostracized by their friends and family because of their habits and erratic behavior. Many develop skin conditions and respiratory problems that are unique to this form of abuse. Some develop a ring-shaped rash along their mouths and noses as a result of the constant contact with hazardous chemicals. Others may have difficulty concentrating on tasks or become irrational if denied access to their preferred inhalants.

Huffing can produce hallucinations.
Huffing can produce hallucinations.

Many drug abusers turn to huffing when they can no longer afford their drugs of choice, since many inhalants are legal, inexpensive, and easy to obtain. Some manufacturers have changed their formulas in order to discourage the practice, but there are still literally hundreds of alternatives available to habitual huffers. Treatment for inhalant abuse is available in many areas of the country, but some inhalants are so toxic that permanent damage occurs after only a few exposures.

The chemicals found in some types of aerosol cans are deliberately inhaled when huffing.
The chemicals found in some types of aerosol cans are deliberately inhaled when huffing.

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Discussion Comments


Would huffing cause your lungs to become hard?


This is incredibly helpful information. Thank you so much for sharing it!


The only person who can truly stop a huffer is the huffer him/herself. They have to want to stop, usually after they hit rock bottom and realize that life without huffing is a whole lot better than life with it.

What you can do as a friend or family member is let that person know you're aware of their habit and you'd be willing to do absolutely anything within your power to help them get clean and sober. You'd also have to be willing to do absolutely anything to make sure they don't take you or anyone else down with them if they choose not to seek help. You are dealing with a drug addict who has probably suffered some physical brain damage already. Don't expect them to just hand over the paint cans voluntarily and walk away from the habit. They can't. They are powerless when it comes to the paint and they'll have to admit it to themselves before anyone else can help them.

You can make sure you're not playing the role of enabler by accounting for your own actions where this person is concerned. Are you giving that person enough money to buy more paint? Are you giving that person a ride to a store that sells paint? Are you providing that person a space suitable for huffing in private? One thing you can do is poison the well. Make it very difficult for an addict to get his/her drug of choice and use it. Tell local merchants to put that person on a "no sell" list if they can. Some stores now keep gold and silver paint hidden behind the counter to thwart huffers. They can also impose limits on the numbers of cans they will sell to an individual. Get proactive and educate local suppliers on the dangers of huffing.

You can also stage an intervention, preferably with the help of a professional addiction counselor. The addict will learn how his or her habit has negatively affected his or her friends and family, and what they are willing to do to make sure they are not hurt in the future. Detoxing from huffing requires intensive physical and psychological treatment, so family members and friends need to prepare for an extended time in rehab.


Even though you guys explained what huffing is, how can you stop someone who is involved in it?

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