The Dangers of Huffing Paint: Effects on the Brain and Body

graffiti spray paint aerosol cans close up shot

Many parents are appropriately concerned about illicit drug use in their children; however, they may be overlooking potential dangers as a result of the abuse of common household products. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) define inhalants as substances that are used to achieve a number of different psychoactive effects (e.g. “getting high”), but these substances are not primarily designed to be ingested in any manner. Inhalant abuse involves a large category of household products that can be purchased by nearly anyone, including aerosols, solvents, cleaners, etc.

NIDA and SAMHSA data from 2015 indicate that use of inhalants is still of concern, although there may be a downward trend in such use.

  • 8th graders: 7.7 percent reported lifetime use of inhalants and 3.8 percent reported past-year use, while 1.8 percent reported past-month use.
  • 10th graders: 6.6 percent reported using inhalants at any time during their lives, whereas 2.4 percent reported past-year use and 1 percent reported past-month use.
  • 12th graders: 5 percent reported having used inhalants at any time during their lives and 1.7 percent reported using them in the past year, whereas 0.8 percent reported using them in the past month.
  • Those ages 12-17: 9.1 percent reported any use of inhalants over their lives, 2.7 percent reported past-year use, and 0.7 percent reported past-month use.
  • Those ages 18-25: 13.1 percent reported any lifetime use of inhalants, 4.1 percent reported past-year use, and 0.9 percent reported past-month use.
  • Those over age 26: 9.6 percent reported any lifetime use, 0.3 percent reported past-year use, and 0.1 percent reported past-month use.

These trends represent a decrease in past-year and past-month use over most of the age groups surveyed; however, use levels still remain concerning. The most concerning aspect of the data indicates that the vast majority of individuals who continue to use inhalants are under the age of 18.

Huffing Paint

The process of “huffing” typically involves putting the substance (e.g., paint) in some type of container, such as a bag, and then rapidly breathing in the fumes to achieve their psychoactive effects. Because these psychoactive effects are often very short-lived, individuals will continue to “huff” the fumes in order to extend the effects. The data from SAMHSA also suggests that younger individuals (under the age of 17) are more likely to inhale products like paint, paint thinner, etc., and older individuals are more likely to inhale products with nitrous oxide in them.

According to NIDA and the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), there are various effects on the body due to huffing.

  • Inhaling or “huffing” paint results in the chemicals in the fumes being rapidly absorbed through the lungs and into the bloodstream. These chemicals quickly pass through the blood-brain barrier to the brain as well as to all other organs in the body.

  • All inhalants, including paint, produce anesthetic effects that slow down overall functioning of the body’s systems. The effects vary by dosage, such that individuals who inhale for longer periods of time will achieve different or more powerful effects. In general, the effects appear similar to the effects of alcohol intoxication.

  • Depending on the time spent inhaling, one may begin to feel a slight stimulant effect and a loss of inhibitions. As the chemicals take effect, the person will often feel as if they are intoxicated by alcohol. These effects include:

    1. Euphoria
    2. Slurred speech
    3. Issues with motor coordination
    4. Dizziness and lightheadedness
  • As individuals inhale the fumes for longer periods of time, they may begin to become very drowsy, develop headaches, become extremely confused, experience hallucinations, and even become comatose.

  • Symptoms occurring as a result of long-term paint huffing include:

    1. Weight loss
    2. Weakness
    3. Mood swings, including irritability and depression
    4. Severe cardiovascular issues that can include heart attack
    5. Academic problems in school for younger individuals

An early study reported in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology compared 20 individuals who had a history of huffing paint with 20 matched controls on a number of various cognitive (neuropsychological) tests. Findings indicated that the individuals who had a history of sniffing paint performed significantly worse on measures of motor speed, set shifting, attention, and memory. The effects also indicated that a longer duration of huffing/sniffing paint fumes (i.e., those with long-term abuse issue) was associated with more severe impairments on these measures. This suggests that individuals had experienced significant alterations in their brains as a result of this substance abuse.

A review article published in the Journal of Alcohol and Drug Research investigated the effects of inhaling toluene, a chemical that is commonly found in a number of products, including paint thinner and paint. The findings indicated that long-term effects included:

  • Diffused brain atrophy, particularly in the cerebellum, which controls certain aspects of thinking and movement
  • Enlarged brain ventricles, which indicates a loss of brain tissue
  • White matter abnormalities (The white matter constitutes the singling component of the neurons in the brain.)
  • Impaired motor coordination
  • A loss of muscular strength
  • Issues with vision and hearing

NIDA also reports that damage to a number of areas of the brain is observed in individuals who have chronically inhaled substances, such as paint and paint thinners.

Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome

Because the effects of sniffing paint dissipate very rapidly, some individuals begin to “huff” repeatedly for lengthy periods in an effort to extend the psychoactive effects. This can be a potentially dangerous practice. A syndrome known as sudden sniffing death syndrome has been known to occur to some individuals who are otherwise relatively healthy but sniff pain and other inhalants for long periods of time. This can even occur in individuals who are not regular inhalant abusers. Death typically occurs as a result of an overdose to the chemicals in the fumes that lead to cardiac failure.

Abusing inhalants such as paint can also lead to fatalities as a result of:

  • Asphyxiation
  • Choking
  • Swallowing vomit as a result of become ill due to prolonged inhaling

Substance Use Disorders as a Result of Huffing

Individuals who continually engage in the practice of huffing are at risk to develop a formal substance use disorder. NIDA reports that individuals do develop tolerance to inhalants, cravings for them, and may develop a formal withdrawal syndrome as a consequence of continued misuse of inhalants such as paint. Typically, individuals who develop a formal substance use disorder display:

  • A marked lack of control over their practice of inhaling substances, including:

    1. Impairments in aspects of life as a result of their preference to inhale substances
    2. Failing to maintain important personal obligations or responsibilities in favor of huffing
    3. Continuing to frequently huff despite the knowledge that it is resulting in physical or psychological damage
    4. Frequently huffing for longer periods of time or in greater amounts than originally intended
    5. Giving up important activities in favor of huffing
  • Frequently craving or having strong urges to inhale paint or other substances

  • Continuing to engage in the practice of huffing even though it may be hazardous

  • Developing significant tolerance to paint fumes or other substances

  • Developing withdrawal symptoms after one has stopped sniffing substances

Last updated on July 31, 20182018-07-31T13:46:23
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