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The Dangerous Trend of Huffing Compressed Air – Risks and Treatments

Last Updated: March 21, 2024

Reviewed by Dr. Norman Chazin

Inhalant abuse, referred to as huffing, is prevalent among teenagers both in the United States and globally.

Recent data shows that about 21.7 million Americans above age 12 have used inhalants at least once. However, cases of men over 40 years huffing compressed air have also been reported. Huffing became a trend post-1950s when reports of model airplane glue-sniffing among youth surfaced in 1959, causing a very well-known epidemic throughout the 1960s, especially due to household spray products being cheap, legal and accessible.

These products were never meant for people to consume, but their euphoria-inducing ingredients combined with their affordability make them a quick option to get “high.” Keep reading to understand the addictive nature of inhalants, effective addiction management, and preventive measures.

What is Huffing?

Huffing involves the use of inhalants, which are volatile substances emitting chemical vapors, inhaled through a soaked rag placed in the mouth (young people deliberately inhale vapors 15–20 times over a relatively brief period –i.e., 10–15 min) to induce a psychoactive effect.

Unlike other abused substances, inhalants are typically only taken through inhalation. This covers various chemicals found in numerous products, making precise categorization challenging. These include volatile solvents, aerosols, gases, and nitrites, often found in household, industrial, and medical products.

Other ways inhalants can be consumed include:

  • “Sniffing” or “snorting” fumes from containers.
  • Directly spraying aerosols into the nose or mouth.
  • “Bagging” (inhaling fumes from substances sprayed or deposited inside a plastic or paper bag.)
  • Inhaling from balloons filled with nitrous oxide.

While inhalants’ chemical substances can cause diverse pharmacological effects, most induce a rapid high similar to alcohol intoxication, marked by initial excitement followed by drowsiness, disinhibition, lightheadedness, and agitation. Inhalation of significant quantities often results in anesthesia and potential unconsciousness. The brief duration of the high enables adolescents its use and concealment.

4 Reasons Why Huffing Compressed Air is Addictive

As with any other substance foreign to the human body, inhalants can be highly addictive due to their impact on the brain’s neurobiology. When inhaled,  the chemicals in these substances quickly enter the bloodstream and travel to the brain.

Here’s how inhalants affect the brain’s neurochemistry:

  • Dopamine Release

A study on the effects of inhalant toluene on the mesolimbic dopamine system shows that this inhalant can affect the midbrain dopamine neurons, a critical brain area responsible for assessing natural and drug-induced rewards. These findings point out that voluntary inhalation of solvents can cause changes in the reward–sensitive dopamine neurons, potentially leading to a desire for repeated use.

  • GABAergic Activity

There are some similarities between inhalants and inhaled anesthetics. Similar to anesthesia, inhalants may also affect the activity of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that inhibits neural activity. By enhancing GABAergic activity, inhalants suppress brain function, leading to feelings of relaxation and disinhibition.

  • Glutamatergic Activity

Inhalants can disrupt the balance of glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter involved in learning and memory. Excessive glutamate activity can lead to neurotoxicity and cell damage, contributing to addiction and cognitive impairments associated with inhalant abuse.

  • Neuroadaptive Changes

Together, these effects can be considered neuroadaptive changes. Thus, prolonged inhalant use can alter the structure and function of neural circuits involved in reward, motivation and decision-making. These changes can increase the likelihood of addiction.

Signs of Huffing Compressed Air

It’s very important to note, especially for parents and legal guardians, that signs of inhalant abuse can be subtle and can dissipate rapidly. Two major signs can point out to this disorder: 1) chemical odor can be often detected in the breath of inhalant abusers and 2) large stores of inhalants, perhaps stored in unusual places, i.e., under a child’s bed.

Other indicators of inhalant abuse include:

  • Paint or other stains on the face, hands, or clothes
  • Concealed empty spray paint or solvent containers, chemical-soaked rags or clothing
  • Drunken or disoriented demeanor
  • Slurred speech
  • Nausea or diminished appetite
  • Inattentiveness, coordination issues, irritability and depression
  • Perioral dryness or pyodermas (huffer’s rash)
  • Changes in school performance

Withdrawal Symptoms of Huffing Compressed Air

Withdrawal symptoms occur when a person stops inhalant use due to the body’s dependency on compressed air, which can appear within hours to days after the substance’s absence. The withdrawal following symptoms may be present:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Muscle Weakness
  • Tremors
  • Cravings

Health Risks of Huffing Compressed Air

According to studies, it’s difficult to predict how much inhalant can be fatal, which is the reason why inhalant abuse can cause unpredictable risks. The Texas Commission on Drugs and Alcohol Abuse recognizes the following lethal outcomes:

  • Asphyxia: Lack of oxygen due to people stopping breathing.
  • Choking: Users may choke on vomit.
  • Suffocation: Inhalation from plastic bags heightens this risk.
  • Injuries: Inhalants can induce recklessness or aggression, leading to fatal accidents.
  • Suicides: Depression following inhalant use may prompt suicidal behavior.
  • Cardiac arrest: Inhalants can cause rapid, irregular heartbeats, often leading to sudden death.
  • Gateway to other drugs: Inhalant use may lead to experimentation with more potent substances.

Recovery Treatments for Huffing Compressed Air

Several treatment options are available for people using compressed air recreationally. Treatment options depend on several factors, such as length of abuse, symptoms, and mental health conditions. Among the options, we have:

  1. Inpatient rehabilitation for comprehensive treatment in a controlled environment.
  2. Outpatient programs for flexible schedules to maintain daily routines.
  3. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to target patterns and behaviors associated with inhalant abuse.
  4. Group therapy for peer support and shared experiences.
  5. Family therapy addresses underlying family dynamics and supports the individual’s recovery.
  6. Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) to manage withdrawal symptoms.
  7. Holistic therapies for complementary therapies such as yoga, meditation, and art therapy.
  8. Dual diagnosis treatment to address co-occurring mental health disorders.
  9. Relapse Prevention to learning coping strategies and maintaining sobriety in the long term.

Huffing Compressed Air – Final Considerations

Children and teenagers are often the most vulnerable when it comes to experimenting with substances. Some individuals or schoolmates may manipulate or pressure them into trying inhalants.

Parents and legal guardians should remain vigilant for any changes in behavior or signs of substance abuse. If you suspect inhalant abuse or any substance misuse, seek help immediately. Contact a healthcare professional or addiction specialist to provide support and guidance for recovery.

People Also Ask

What does difluoroethane do to you?

Difluoroethane, commonly found in compressed air cans, can cause dizziness, disorientation, asphyxiation and even death when inhaled due to its ability to displace oxygen in the lungs.

What is huffing slang?

“Huffing” is slang for inhaling the fumes of volatile substances like paint, glue, or aerosols to achieve a high. It’s a form of inhalant abuse with serious health risks, including brain damage and death.

What does it mean to smoke huff?

“Smoking huff” typically refers to inhaling the fumes from a volatile substance like paint thinner or aerosols to induce a high. It’s a dangerous form of inhalant abuse with severe health risks, including brain damage and death.


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Retrieved on March 20, 2024.

Published on: April 4th, 2017

Updated on: March 21st, 2024

María José Petit-Rodríguez

About Author

María José Petit-Rodríguez

Medically Reviewed by

Dr. Norman Chazin

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