Huffing Paint: Signs and Symptoms

Content Overview

What is Huffing?

Huffing is a type of substance abuse that involves inhaling fumes from household substances in order to experience a high. Also known as sniffing or inhalant abuse, this practice is usually undertaken to feel euphoria or experience visions or hallucinations; however, it is an extremely risky form of substance abuse.

Spray paint and other paints are commonly used in huffing. Some of the toxic chemicals in paint provide an intense high that can be easily obtained by those who are otherwise unable to afford or get access to other drugs. However, huffing paint and other forms of inhalant abuse are extremely dangerous, causing multiple severe injuries and deaths every year.

Huffing Paint

Huffing is a generalized term that is often applied to various types of inhalant abuse. However, it also represents just one of the many ways Mayo Clinic describes in which inhalants are used to produce a high, including:

  • Huffing: putting the substance in a cloth and pressing to the mouth
  • Bagging: pouring the contents into a bag and inhaling through the bag opening
  • Sniffing or snorting: inhaling the fumes directly from the container
  • Spraying: just what it sounds like – spraying the substance directly into the nose or mouth

Huffing is most often used for paint, which can be sopped into the cloth from the can or sprayed into the rag using spray paint. The rag is then placed over the nose and mouth so the fumes can be inhaled.

The active chemical in huffing is toluene, a toxic chemical that, according to the Journal of Drug and Alcohol Research, is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream through the lungs and initially appears to produce an excited and euphoric response.

Prevalence of Huffing Paint

Inhalant abuse is most common among children and youths who do not have the means to obtain other types of drugs. However, adults are also known to use inhalants to get high. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health indicates that about 527,000 people 12 or older reported using inhalants in 2015. The majority of these people were between the ages of 12 and 17, representing about 0.7 percent of those in this age range.

The percentage of these people that specifically huff paint is unknown; however, spray paint is one of the most popular substances to be inhaled. As toluene is the active chemical in paint, it causes an intense euphoric rush, according to Medscape, which accounts for the popularity of paint as an inhalant of abuse. From reports, silver and gold paints contain the highest levels of this chemical.

Signs and Symptoms of Huffing Paint

In addition, there are mental and physical signs to look out for, according to MedicineNet:

  • Intoxication (similar to alcohol intoxication)
  • Slurred speech or loss of coordination
  • Chemical odors around the individual
  • Drowsiness
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Loss of inhibition
  • Irritability or moodiness
 

The most obvious sign that someone has been huffing paint is the paint itself, which might be found on the individual’s face. Paint or paint cans may be missing from the household supply, or paint-covered rags may be found hidden or in the trash. The person who is huffing may frequent hardware supply stores or have empty paint cans in their car or garage.

Dangers Associated with Huffing

According to a report from Medscape, inhalant abuse is extremely dangerous. Injury due to inhalant abuse occurs frequently, resulting in various types of damage to the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, and brain; these can result in hearing or vision loss or loss of coordination.

The incidences of death from inhaling fumes from paint and other substances total 100-125 per year. Death can result from:

  • Asphyxiation: Sometimes, suffocation can occur if the person cuts off oxygen by bagging or otherwise cutting off oxygen. Similarly, if the inhalant replaces too high a volume of oxygen in the lungs, the individual can asphyxiate.
  • Sudden sniffing death syndrome (SSDS): This condition results from the extreme rush created by inhaling the toxic chemicals in paint and other substances. It is thought that this is caused by an adverse reaction to epinephrine in the body, resulting in sudden heart failure. SSDS can occur even with first-time inhalant abuse.

Short-Term and Long-Term Effects

In the short-term, the person who is huffing paint may develop redness in and around the eyes. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the individual may also experience dizziness, confusion, lack of coordination, belligerence, lethargy, muscle weakness, and stupor as a result of inhaling toluene.

The article from the Journal of Drug and Alcohol Research indicates that long-term toluene abuse can result in cognitive impairment, including inability to concentrate, lowered IQ, memory loss, and impaired judgment. Damage to the brain’s white matter can also occur, causing neurological problems. Liver toxicity, kidney damage, and heart failure are also often found in people who have engaged in long-term, chronic paint huffing.

 

For women who are pregnant, huffing paint can cause physical malformations and developmental damage in the fetus. This can also result in death of the fetus.

Is Huffing Paint Addictive?

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, huffing paint can be addictive. Specifically, the extreme euphoric rush that occurs when inhaling toluene can become addictive, especially with repeated abuse.

An article from Science Blogs describes the fact that toluene acts on areas of the brain that control the pleasure response and the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is associated with addiction to substances like nicotine and alcohol, among others. While the addiction mechanism is still not fully understood, the dopamine system appears to be involved deeply in the addictive response to substances.

Treatment for Inhalant Abuse

Emergency treatment may be necessary for people who have experienced acute inhalant intoxication by huffing paint. For chronic users, addiction treatment generally involves therapy and other education and instruction to help the individual learn to manage triggers and cravings for continued inhalant abuse. These therapies may include:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
  • Peer support or 12-Step groups
  • Family therapy
  • Relapse prevention education
  • Motivational therapy

By fully engaging in these therapies and treatments, the individual can break the cycle of addiction to inhaling paint and avoid relapse to continued use of this dangerous illicit substance.

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