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Huffing is the deliberate inhalation of toxic gases, vapors, or fumes in order to become intoxicated, possibly to the point of unconsciousness. Many individuals who do this will spray aerosol chemicals, such as enamel paint or solvents, into a paper bag and then inhale the vapors through their noses and mouths. The vaporized intoxicants reach the person's lungs, an area rich in capillaries. Once the chemicals enter the bloodstream, the effect is believed to be similar to an intravenous drug injection or a nasal snort. The effects of huffing can range from mild inebriation or euphoria to vivid hallucinations or even unconsciousness. Different kinds of chemical compounds found in inhalants create different kinds of "highs" for the user.
One of the difficulties with inhalant abuse is the lack of legal control over the chemical intoxicants themselves. Gasoline, butane, nitrous oxide, paint thinners and hobby glues, for example, are all considered legal substances and can be readily obtained through legitimate outlets. Someone can purchase a can of gasoline from a service station and then soak the liquid on a rag in order to concentrate the intoxicating vapors. Gold or silver spray paint can be found in most hardware or department stores. Cigarette lighters containing butane gas are also legally available to most adults, and an abuser can breathe in the raw fumes to the point of intoxication.
Even something as seemingly harmless as a pressurized can of whipped cream can be abused. Many aerosol-powered food and personal hygiene products contain nitrous oxide, a gas that can be used by dentists as an anesthetic. The huffer will modify the dispenser in order to release the nitrous oxide into his or her lungs. Some substance abusers will even obtain canisters of nitrous oxide illegally and breathe the vapors contained in a facial mask. One of the inherent dangers of huffing is a loss of oxygen (hypoxia) caused when the inhaled gas is not mixed or replaced with oxygen or fresh air.
Because other substances contained in the inhalants can be highly toxic, people who abuse inhalants may also experience serious kidney and liver damage, along with chemical pneumonia and permanent respiratory failure. Individuals may also perform dangerous acts while under the influence of an inhaled substance, and many chronic huffers are ostracized by their friends and family because of their habits and erratic behavior. Many develop skin conditions and respiratory problems that are unique to this form of abuse. Some develop a ring-shaped rash along their mouths and noses as a result of the constant contact with hazardous chemicals. Others may have difficulty concentrating on tasks or become irrational if denied access to their preferred inhalants.
Many drug abusers turn to huffing when they can no longer afford their drugs of choice, since many inhalants are legal, inexpensive, and easy to obtain. Some manufacturers have changed their formulas in order to discourage the practice, but there are still literally hundreds of alternatives available to habitual huffers. Treatment for inhalant abuse is available in many areas of the country, but some inhalants are so toxic that permanent damage occurs after only a few exposures.