There is an increasing need for the understanding and recognition of less commonly discussed forms of substance misuse, such as “huffing”. This term, relatively unknown to many, refers to the inhalation of chemical vapours to achieve a euphoric, mind-altering effect.
Huffing, also known as solvent abuse, sniffing, dusting, or bagging, involves the intentional inhalation of volatile substances usually found in common household products. These can range from glue, aerosol deodorants, cleaning supplies, gasoline, to nitrous oxide, often known as ‘whippets’. The widespread availability and affordability of these substances make huffing an easy and stealthy route to substance abuse, especially among adolescents.
The process typically involves inhaling the substance directly from its container, from a bag into which the substance has been emptied, or from a rag soaked in the substance and then held over the mouth or nose. However, the desired mind-altering effect from huffing, described as a high or rush, is short-lived, leading individuals to repeat the process for prolonged periods.
The risks of huffing are many and far-reaching. Acute risks include dizziness, headaches, nausea, loss of motor control, hallucinations, and, in extreme cases, sudden sniffing death syndrome, a fatal heart failure resulting from severe cardiac arrhythmias. The chronic effects can be equally distressing, including liver and kidney damage, hearing loss, permanent brain damage, and psychological issues like depression and anxiety.
The legal and seemingly innocent nature of these substances can often mask the harmful potential of huffing. Parents, teachers, and caregivers must stay vigilant and be aware of the signs of inhalant abuse. These may include physical signs such as chemical smells on breath or clothing, paint or other stains on face, hands, or clothes, and a constant runny nose or sores around the mouth. Behavioural signs might involve a decline in academic or work performance, loss of appetite, changes in social groups, and mood swings.
A 2019 survey conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) revealed that approximately 2 million Americans had engaged in inhalant use in the past year, a significant number of whom were adolescents. This statistic underscores the pressing need to address this issue and spread awareness to prevent future abuse.
Educational initiatives are vital in reducing the prevalence of huffing. Awareness campaigns targeting parents, educators, and young people are necessary to highlight the dangers of this practice and debunk the myth of its harmlessness. Furthermore, product manufacturers can contribute by altering product compositions to make them less susceptible to abuse, or by adding strong aversive agents.
On the treatment front, it is essential to understand that inhalant abuse is a form of substance use disorder and should be treated as such. Early detection is crucial, and a multidisciplinary approach involving psychological therapy, medical intervention, and family or community support can be effective. Unfortunately, there is still no specific pharmaceutical treatment for inhalant dependence, making prevention and early intervention all the more vital.
Huffing, a silent but deadly form of substance abuse, deserves far more attention and discourse than it currently receives. It is a public health issue hiding in plain sight. With its serious health risks and rising prevalence, particularly among young people, it is time for a collective effort to demystify, educate, and prevent this dangerous habit. By shedding light on huffing, we can start to address its root causes, find effective treatments, and most importantly, save lives.
Jane Harris, PhD is a clinical psychologist specialising in substance abuse disorders and adolescent mental health.