Straight Talk Advice

Inhalants: Smells like drugs, acts like drugs, lies like drugs

May 12, 2015

Boy seems to be huffing but won’t admit it

Dear Straight Talk: My little brother is 15. Whenever he enters the room or gets in the car, I smell a strong odor of nail polish, polish remover or paint thinner. My mom and I have gone through his room and found nothing. He's acting strange, hates school, has no motivation and weird sleeping habits, yet I cannot find proof. We've scared him about huffing and he denies it, but he might be lying. How should we approach this? —S., 20, Aurora, Colorado

Samantha 23, Toledo, Ohio Ask me a question

My brother always said if you have to be suspicious about something, it's probably true. You and your mom aren't ignorant people and personality changes combined with inhalant odors is a no-brainer. Start monitoring his activities more. Sure he can find ways around you, but you'll know you've done everything you could. The rest is in God's hands. Earlier in life when I had tremendous turmoil and my only concern was my next high, I abused the classic air duster. I didn't care that one wrong tweak could have killed me right then and there. I watched people huff and drop to the floor convulsing with seizures, come to and huff again. Kids know which everyday products will get them high. Parents and teachers need to become equally educated.

Karlee 17, Bentleyville, Pennsylvania Ask me a question

Around here, huffing isn't so big. It's mostly pot and heroin, strange as that sounds. It's important to make kids aware of the dangers of drugs without glorifying them which just invites risk-taking. Kids benefit knowing the nitty-gritty straight-up details of what something can do. It's hard to get young males to trust mothers and sisters so make him realize how much you guys love him and sacrifice for him. Peer pressure plays a huge role in drugs, so find friends against it and get them involved. Huffing usually leads to further drug abuse, so stay on this.

Justin 18, Brentwood, California Ask me a question

The family member genuinely closest to him should ask him to come clean. Assure him you want to help, not bust or shame him. I find it unusual that people huff when marijuana is so available — not that marijuana is good, I disapprove of all drugs. But to risk death inhaling toxins? If he opens up, you can find out what personal problems are driving this.

Icis 16, Lehigh Acres, Florida Ask me a question

When teenagers are caught, they shut down. Let him reboot and try less blunt questions: What do you know about huffing? Who do you talk to when you're troubled? Do you feel confident? These questions provide information without causing a retreat.

Meghan 20, State College, Pennsylvania Ask me a question

Honestly, scare tactics rarely work, the more dangerous and reckless, the more the appeal. Is he depressed, something going on at school, home? I never huffed, but during a rough period I abused Benadryl to feel high when I couldn't find anything else. Contact his friends (be friendly and use some psychology). They might not rat, but they could provide clues.

Dear S.: Unfortunately, there is no truth serum (drug test) for huffing. Inhalant chemicals are diverse and leave the system quickly. Huffing tends to be short-lived, replaced by other drugs when the high stops feeling good. Sadly, many user's lives are short-lived as well. Death can and does come instantly, without warning.

Drugs make people lie, so snoop bigger. Check his texts, social networking sites (translate with, monitor his actions, go public with extended family, his friends and their parents. Boys respond to strong fair authority whereas scare tactics (generally successful for girls) usually backfire because risk-taking raises a boy's status. Your family must use every tool you’ve got: snooping, monitoring, going public, and promising/delivering serious consequences. Don't delay.

Editor’s Note: We have a problem Houston. According to the Inhalant Abuse Prevention website:

• 1 in 4 U.S. students has intentionally abused a common household product by eighth grade.
• Inhalants tend to be the drug first tried by kids — age 10 or younger is not uncommon.
• 59% of 12-year-olds are aware of friends huffing.
• Inhalants are the fourth most abused substance after alcohol, tobacco and marijuana.

• rash around the nose and mouth
• odor of paint or solvent on clothes, skin or breath
• paint or solvent residues in sweat areas of clothing
• missing, disturbed or lower levels of household chemicals
• your child acts drunk or mentally disturbed
• your child has headaches, nausea, vomiting, slurred speech, loss of motor control, wheezing
• your child displays emotional upset, disrupted sleep patterns, new friends, sudden disinterest in sports or school.

Prevention: The number-one preventative (in addition to being tuned in to your child and having created and maintaining a secure child-parent attachment with him/her), is talking to your child about inhalants. I also recommend asking your school to obtain the Inhalant Abuse Prevention Kit, a electronic presentation designed for getting parents on board to recognize and deal with the reality of this problem.

Boys versus Girls: Knowing you can die from inhalants, or they will lower IQ, will cause a lot of girls to take pause. Most boys, however, seek risk by nature and don't believe the warnings. Risk actually lights up a part of their brain and elevates their social status in the eyes of other boys. Fortunately, boys respond to clear-cut punitive measures, such as taking away privileges — this lights up another part of their brain. They actually LIKE clear-cut authority, with less chitchat about feelings. That said, school or sport teams are not the thing to take away (which often happens, if not, by a parent, by the school through suspensions or being cut). School and sports help a boy. Best is taking away other favorite things like driving privileges, smart phones, video games, special events, etc.

Girls versus Boys: The main reason girls use drugs isn't thrill of risk, it's low self-esteem, stress, and depression. They respond to reason and safety more and their brains are lit up by a warmer, fuzzier, let's talk-about-feelings kind of authority which includes things like being forced to call you from the home phone of wherever they are. (If a boy had to do that, he would be mocked horribly.) And no, warm and fuzzy does not include sharing your own drug use stories — this is counterproductive for either sex child and  only undermines your authority. Save these conversations until much, much later when your children are high-functioning adults.

Deaths are severely under-reported. The National Inhalant Prevention Coalition reports 100-125 inhalant-related deaths per year, mostly middle school victims. However, most deaths are attributed to heart attack or stroke, not the cause, which for children is often inhalants.

Inhalants are found in a wide variety of household products including: spray paint, nail polish remover, whiteout, markers, gasoline, glue, air duster for computer cleaning, shoe polish, and aerosols such as whipped cream canisters, hair sprays and frying pan sprays. Inhaling these substances to get high is known as "sniffing" or "huffing."

Inhalation brings these toxins into the blood stream so fast it is equivalent in intensity to shooting up psychoactive drugs. The person can feel drunk, have space/time distortions, hallucinations and mental disturbances. According to the National Institute of Health: "Even inhaling once can disrupt heart rhythms and lower oxygen levels. Either of these can cause death. Regular abuse can result in serious harm to the brain, heart, kidneys, and liver."

If your child is using or experimenting with ANY drugs, I can't recommend weekly rehab counseling enough. It changes kids' lives to be seen, have their family dynamics and traumas seen, and learn how to cope positively. It's generally much more useful than seeing a regular counselor. Best books on the subject: "How to Help your Chlld Become Drug Free" and "Adolescent and Young Adult Addiction," both by Jon Daily. —Lauren

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  1. By R.A., age 16, from Vacaville, CA on 05/12/2015

    I strongly suspect that my sister is huffing as she has many of the symptoms described above, including the smell of glue and nail polish remover on herself and her clothes and redness in her nostrils.  She also has been acting weird and out of it much of the time.  We share a room and sometimes she’s hyper and awake all night and also keeps me awake, and other times she’s totally out of it.  A few times I’ve come in our room and found her on the floor totally zonked out and literally had to undress her and put her in bed. She doesn’t do the huffing in front of me, but she’s started locking me out of the bathroom even though we never had a problem sharing it before even when using the toilet and shower, and spends a great deal of time in there and I also can smell the glue and nail polish remover in there.  Our mom’s very busy with her small one woman business and when she isn’t working spends all of her time with her new boyfriend and doesn’t seem to have a clue that anything is going on with my sister.  This reaises the “should I tell?” question that has been written about many times in Straight Talk, and I probably should tell our mom, but I don’t know how to approach it and I know my sister would be mad at me and I have to live in the same room with her.


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  2. By JR, age 40, from Toledo OH USA on 05/14/2015

    After reading your column today, about huffing, I do have a comment to leave. When I was huffing, I always found another container to put my stuff in. I use to like huffing lighter fluid. So, as not to be suspicion of a lighter fluid container being in my room, I would look around for something else to put it in. My mom never found it. Because she was looking for the wrong thing. I use to also huff canned air, or whatever it’s called. Very easy to get and have around. You don’t have to huff it through your mouth. Ok, just thought I would put my 2 cents in.

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  3. By Janice, age 42, from Sacramento, CA on 05/14/2015

    I really think that R.A. should tell her mom about what she has observed in her sister and hope that she will.  I really wish that my daughter had informed me about her sister’s condition so that she could have received help much sooner.  Based upon my experience, sisters who share a room are going to know what is going on with each other far more than their parents will.  This was true of my sister and myself when I was a teenager, and is also true of my teenage daughters.  My daughters are close and share a room.  They started locking their door and would not permit me to see them undressed.  It seemed strange to me, since I am their mother and they had never been shy about their bodies with me before, but remained comfortable with each other and also continued to be comfortable sharing the bathroom in the morning when using the toilet and shower, but also started locking me out of the bathroom when they were in there.  Their willingness to share the bathroom actually made things easier for me, so I didn’t make an issue of it.  I also remembered that my sister and I were much more comfortable about nudity with each other than we were with our mother when we were teenagers, so I decided not to make an issue of their locking their bedroom door either.

    However, I later learned that one of my daughters was both huffing and was anorexic and that her sister was well aware.  I did not become aware until the problem became very serious.  I was able to get help for her and she is now doing well, but it would have been much better if her sister had told me sooner.  My other daughter said that she had been very concerned but that he sister did not want her to tell, so she respected her wishes, but my daughter who had the problem now wishes that she had received help sooner and regrets not seeking it.  I think that everyone needs to realize that a teenager (or anyone) with a problem such as this is not thinking straight and someone close to the situation who is aware needs to take action to obtain help for them.


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    1. By Sammie, age 16, from Santa Ana, California on 05/15/2015

      My stepsister huffs and I ain’t about to tell on her!  If she wants to do something so stupid, I say let her be stupid!  She already hates me cause she’s forced to share her room and bed with me cause CPS took me away from my mom cause she’s a drug addic and dealer so they sent me to live with my dad and stepmom.  I can’t help it but she still takes it out on me cause I “invaded her room.”  Just cause my body isn’t perfect I can’t even undress without her puttin me down and making fun of me.  We have 6 people in the apartment and only 1 bathroom so they make us share it in the morning when everybody needs it to get ready cause “your both girls” and “your the same” as my stepmom says and I can’t even take a pee or poop without her making crude comments and puttin me down.  So don’t nobody tell me that I should tell on her and try to get help for her when It’ll just make things worse for me!


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      1. By L.T., age 16, from Petaluma, CA on 05/17/2015

        I agree with Sammie.  My stepsisters huff in their room and their mom doesn’t have a clue, but it would only make trouble for me if I told on them.  Fortunately, I only have to share a room with them every other weekend on visitation and that’s bad enough.  I don’t think I could handle sharing a room with them every day like Sammie has to. They also resent having to share their room with me and take it out on me even though I have no choice in the matter.  I can’t even get undressed in the bedroom because they humiliate me and make fun of my overweight body, and then they make fun of me for changing in the bathroom when “we’re all girls and all the same.”  They also go out of their way to be naked in front of me because they know it makes me uncomfortable and embarrassed and to show off the fact that their bodies are better than mine. If I say anything, I again get the “we’re all girls” line.  They say I’ll be sorry if I tell their mom about the huffing, and I believe them.  So why should I tell on them and make what is already a bad situation even worse for me?


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    2. By LAUREN, from on 05/17/2015

      Janice—I can’t tell you how many times STA has covered the sibling trap but it is a lesson that needs to be told again and again. Nobody says it better than someone who has been through it! Your letter is very poignant. Thank you for taking the time and very glad your daughter is doing well now.—Love, Lauren

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  4. By Anonymous, age 33, from Galt, CA on 05/14/2015

    If your brother is experiencing fatigue, behaving differently, and smells of nail polish remover, he could be huffing — or he could have undiagnosed diabetes. If he insists he is not huffing and you and your mom can’t find any evidence of it, please get him to the doctor ASAP to rule out diabetes. Untreated Type 1 diabetes can lead to ketoacidosis, which can cause fatigue, changes in sleep, eating and drinking habits, and a fruity smell that some compare to the smell of nail polish remover. Ketoacidosis is a VERY serious complication and can lead to diabetic coma or worse. If you can’t find evidence of huffing and your brother matches those symptoms, please, PLEASE make sure he does not have a serious, life-threatening illness.

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    1. By LAUREN, from on 05/17/2015

      Dear Anonymous—Thank you for this tip about untreated diabetes and ketoacidosis. I agree that his family should rule this out ASAP since he insists he isn’t huffing.  I never would have known about this, so thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing.—Love, Lauren

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      1. By Sarah Vanhorn, age 69, from CoosBay, Oregon, USA on 05/18/2015

        Regarding the column about the child who smelled like acetone etc. I am a nurse and frequently diabetics carry an odor like this and it is frequently misinterpreted especially in children and teenagers. Please consider a medical assessmentand it is frequently misinterpreted especially in children and teenagers

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    2. By Darrell, age 65, from Eugene, Oregon, USA on 05/18/2015

      Your column entitled “Boy, 15, appears to be huffing…” has a description of a boy smelling of nail polish remover and no other evidence of huffing found.  Did you consider that the boy may be suffering from ketosis?

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  5. By P.L., age 17, from Santa Rosa, CA on 05/14/2015

    As a former huffer, I can tell you that JR is right.  If your brother is huffing, he will probably be smart enough not to have the obvious containers sitting around and will find ways to hide it.  I huffed several different things until I settled on nail polish remover which gave me what I considered the best high.  However, it was not difficult to find something totally innocuous to hide it in.  My sister who I share a room with knew something was going on with me that wasn’t right, but didn’t suspect huffing.  The huffing caused me to lose my appetite and she could see that I was losing alot of weight when I was naked in our room and could also see that I was having problems on the toilet when we shared the bathroom, so she suspected that I had anorexia or bulimia, but not huffing.  I also agree that R.A. should tell her mom about her suspicions about her sister.  Even though my sister didn’t have it right, she knew that something was wrong and if she’d told our mom, I think I might have gotten help sooner.  I probably would have been mad at her in the beginning, but not in the end.


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    1. By LAUREN, from on 05/17/2015

      P.L.—Thanks for writing. It will help other siblings read situations like this as the call for help that they are and tell the parents. Nobody is as convincing as people like you. I also really appreciate your sharing the connection between huffing and loss of appetite. Thank you for waking us all up a bit more.—Love, Lauren

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  6. By C.R., age 19, from Irvine, CA on 05/15/2015

    My sister and I found it very easy to hide what we were huffing in plain sight.  We were already using nail polish and nail polish remover before we started huffing them, so seeing and smelling it in our room and on us gave our mom no reason for suspicion.  We thought we were so smart to be able to do this right under her nose (literally) without her having a clue.  However, we were stupid, not smart.  I also now feel really bad that I got my younger sister hooked on it since she always looked up to me as her big sister and followed my example.  We have a little brother who would try to barge in on us when we were undressed, so our mom let us get a lock for our door so all we had to do was lock the door when we were huffing and claim that we were undressed and that was the reason the door was locked.  I really wanted to go to college and when it started affecting my concentration and my grades started to suffer, I forced myself to stop, but it wasn’t easy.  I also got my sister to stop, but I wish like anything that we had never started.

    I thought huffing was mostly confined to high school kids and that college students were smart enough to avoid doing something so stupid.  However, I’m now in college and there are plenty of huffers in the dorm as well as those who abuse other drugs.  I’m just glad that I stopped and got my sister to stop before it did us any permanent damage.


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  7. By Caroline, age 40, from Northwood, Ohio on 05/16/2015

    I also suspect that my teenage daughters may be huffing or doing something harmful, but I do not know how to find out for certain and do not want to wrongfully accuse them.  I recently remarried and when their new stepfather moved in they said that they wanted a lock on their bedroom door for “privacy.”  I told them that they had nothing to worry about as he would never walk in on them, but they still were concerned so I got a lock for the door even though I didn’t think it really necessary.  When it was just the three of us this was never an issue and in fact they were very casual about nudity around the house, but I realize that it is different with a new male in the home. 

    However, lately they have been keeping their door locked most of the time, not just when they are undressing.  They allow me to come in if they are undressed or even completely nude, so modesty is not an issue at least when it comes to me, so I am wondering if there is some other reason that they keep the door locked nearly all of the time.  In addition, I have been smelling what I think is nail polish or nail polish remover in their room even though they do not normally wear nail polish.  In addition, they sometimes come across “spacy” if you know what I mean, and spend much less time on outside activities than they used to.  I don’t want to be a snoop and search their room when they are at school, but I’m starting to think that maybe I should.


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    1. By LAUREN, from on 05/17/2015

      Caroline—Yes, search their room and look not just for nail polish remover/nail polish/other solvents/paints, but places they might hide them as readers have mentioned. If you do find something and they are not painting their nails, this is evidence enough for me. Don’t hesitate to remove their lock and set a new rule that the door has to remain open expect for short periods while dressing.—Love, Lauren

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