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Inhalants, Bagging, Huffing and Youth

If you think kids only use inhalants in the grungiest neighborhoods of an inner city, think again. A little walk around your local high school on the week-end may be an eye-opener. You might find, as I recently did, lots of thick, black permanent marker pens strewn along the sidewalk. It took me a minute to realize these markers were the remnants of getting high by inhaling or huffing.

Inhalants are the drug of choice among pre-teens and early teens. Common household products, like hair spray, spray paint, glue, typewriter correction fluid, permanent markers, nail polish remover, the propellant in canned whipped cream, felt-tip markers, spray deodorants, air freshener spray, gasoline, butane lighters and others….can all be used to get a quick high.

How are these ordinary products used for getting high? If the vapors from these products are sniffed directly from the can, bottle or container, it is called "inhaling". If the vapors from these products are sprayed into a bag, empty pop can or container and then breathed in, this is called "bagging". Lastly, the vapors can be sprayed or poured onto a cloth or piece of clothing (say, a sock) and inhaled deeply or put into the mouth, a practice called "huffing".

Why do kids use inhalants? For many reasons. They're cheap, you can find them in your home or buy them at any local grocery, hardware or variety store, they are easy to hide, you don't need a "dealer", you don't need any extra equipment to use them (so-called drug paraphernalia) and parents are generally unaware of the problem. Because these products are so ordinary and legal, kids can often "explain" why they have them if they are caught.

What kind of high are kids getting? It's usually short-lived. At first, inhalants have a stimulating effect. Then, if the user keeps inhaling, they may feel dizzy, giddy, light-headed or have trouble walking. Sometimes users may feel agitated and become violent. Repeated inhaling can cause a child to pass out, and, sadly, because they rob the body of oxygen, some children die suddenly.

The chemicals kids consume in inhaling are highly toxic or poisonous. These chemicals enter the lungs and then pass from the bloodstream into the brain, where they kill brain cells causing permanent brain damage. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the fumes a teen inhales are much greater than what is considered safe even in a workplace setting. Over time, inhalant use can cause other serious health problems, such as muscle spasms and permanent damage to the nervous system, liver, kidney and bone marrow. Sudden death can occur, even from first-time use, due to suffocation or a high concentration of fumes.

How does the body get rid of inhalants? By exhaling (so smelling chemicals on your child's breath may be a sign of inhalant use) and through urine. What are other signs of inhalant use?

  • Again, breath and clothing that smells like chemicals.
  • Spots or sores on the mouth.
  • Paint or stains on your child's body or clothing.
  • A drunk, dazed or glassy-eyed look.
  • Nausea, loss of appetite.
  • Anxiety, excitability, irritability.
  • Red or runny eyes or nose.

Inhalant use is a very difficult form of substance abuse to treat. They are both physically and psychologically addicting. It may take a month or longer to get the toxins out of your body and users do suffer withdrawal symptoms. Treatment is usually long-term, sometimes lasting up to two years. There is a high rate of relapse. For these reasons, it is important to recognize and treat inhalant use early on, before it becomes a habit.

So, what can parents do to prevent inhalant abuse?
Know the warning signs and be able to recognize the possibility of inhalant abuse.
Talk to your kids about the dangers of inhalant use. Start early, when they are 8 or 9, because most users are 12-14. Make it clear where you stand on drug use.
Help your children resist peer pressure by teaching them it is ok to act independently of a group. For example, if everyone in the family wants chocolate ice cream and your child wants vanilla, honor and applaud the child's independent decision and their ability to resist the pressure of the group to go along.
Help your child become a confident decision-maker by giving them choices. For example, let your child pick out their clothes for school. Applaud their good decision-making and, in time, give them bigger decisions to make.
Be a good example of making healthy choices. If you don't walk the talk, your talk won't walk with your kids.

If you suspect inhalant use, local help is available. For more information contact: Your family doctor, school counselor or school health nurse.
Mid-Columbia Center for Living
(541) 296-5452
National Inhalant Prevention Coalition
1-800-269-4237 or
The Partnership for a Drug-Free America (212) 922-1560 or

  © 2000 Michele Spatz MCMC