A new big bad wolf: Huffing joins puffing as popular substance abuse | PostIndependent.com
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A new big bad wolf: Huffing joins puffing as popular substance abuse

It’s a drug that’s as lethal as a round of Russian roulette – and it’s joined a growing list of inhalants that are becoming increasingly popular with children and teenagers. It’s lighter fluid.

Three weeks ago, the Glenwood Springs Post Independent received an anonymous phone call from a local woman who said her teenage son had nearly died after inhaling or “huffing” lighter fluid. She suggested the newspaper write a story on the dangers of inhaling this chemical – as easy and as legal for youth to procure as a candy bar.

“I never thought my child would do drugs,” the woman said, “until now.”



Inhalant abusers sniff, or huff, psychotropic substances such as glue. The process involves soaking a rag or other material in gasoline or lighter fluid, placing it in a plastic or paper bag, and inhaling the fumes.

Because these substances were never designed to be inhaled intentionally, many are filled with toxic materials. In the case of metallic paint and lighter fluid, the ingredients are so toxic, an individual could reject the substance, and either slip into a coma or experience Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome.



But even if death doesn’t occur, other consequences can be severe and permanent. At the top of the list is the immediate damage that occurs to the brain. The abuser’s ability to learn, retain, reason and function is irrevocably affected since huffing instantly kills brain cells – and brain cells never grow back.

Young abusers

According to Bruce Mendelson, a treatment needs assessment officer for the Colorado Department of Human Services’ alcohol and drug abuse division, publicizing inhalant abuse is something that needs to be done. He says that parents, teachers and others need to be informed so they’re able to detect potential abuse in young people, and get help for those in trouble.

“Trust me,” he said, “writing an article about inhalant abuse isn’t going to make a dent in the knowledge kids already have about it – but it may help adults get a clearer picture of what signs to look for. Kids hear about huffing from their friends, or at school. If you search for `inhalant abuse’ on the Internet, you can’t imagine how many sites are devoted to all types of abuse.”

Inhalant abuse is particularly prevalent among young users who do not have legal access to alcohol and typically don’t have the wherewithal to procure prescription or illegal drugs.

Mendelson said that in Colorado, the age group with the largest recorded number of inhalant abusers is alarmingly young.

“They’re eighth-graders,” he said. “But our data could be off because, among those users, a large percentage become dropouts, which means we can’t continue to get data on them.”

Mendelson’s data regarding inhalant abuse in the Glenwood Springs area, which includes Carbondale, New Castle, Rifle, Parachute and Silt, indicates that the number of local cases is low. There were only eight reported youth inhalant abusers admitted to publicly funded treatment centers from 1998-2002 locally. The rest of the state reported 319 cases for the same time period.

Still, the department of human services’ numbers don’t include youth who may be huffing but not receiving treatment for their abuse. Mendelson said it’s safe to assume that huffing is prevalent in the area, though exact numbers can’t be pinpointed.

Easy to get

Inhalant abuse has been a popular way for young people to get high for generations, largely because the drugs used are so easy to get.

The anonymous caller who reported her son’s huffing to the Post Independent said that she was shocked to learn that she had been supplying her child with her drug of choice – lighter fluid – by simply having the product in the house.

But even still, lighter fluid, as well as other inhalants such as gasoline, paint, correction fluid, and aerosol cans, is available for children to purchase at any time at the local grocery or convenience store.

What doesn’t seem to be available is enough information about the dangers of inhaling such substances. Huffing is as addictive as heroin, and adverse effects include severe headaches, chronic congestion, erosion of brain cells and other vital organs, heart attack and neurologic damage.

What to look for

Mendelson says to be aware of the following signs and symptoms if you fear that inhalant abuse is taking place:

1. Sores or rashes around the nose and mouth

2. Paint marks around nose and mouth

3. Chemical, gasoline, or sweet odor on breath, body and/or clothes

4. Red, watery eyes

5. Pupils either constricted or dilated

6. Decreased respiration

7. Lowered heart rate

8. Impaired vision

9. Fast, deep, or labored breathing

10. Headache, nausea

11. Nosebleeds or nose drips

12. Sneezing

13. Coughing

14. Slurring words, slow, “thick” speech

15. Loss of motor coordination

16. Involuntary voiding

17. Weight loss (long-term use)

Locally, contact Colorado West Counseling Services (384-0215) or Youth Recovery Center (945-3440) for more information about huffing and inhalant abuse.


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