Inhalants are popular among people who can’t afford illegal drugs because they can be found in the home or purchased inexpensively. One inhalant, in particular, canned air, is often inhaled or “huffed” in order to get a quick high. It’s also known as “dusting.” The website inhalant.org reports that inhalants are the fourth most abused substance after alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana.
Canned air, also known as air duster, is used to clean computers and other equipment that's sensitive to liquid. The pressurized blast that comes out is invisible and odorless, so most people assume it’s just air in a can. That’s not actually true. It contains liquefied gas made up of one of two chemicals - tetrafluoroethane or difluoroethane.
Inhaling these chemicals is extremely dangerous. When someone huffs canned air, the chemicals are absorbed into the lungs and sent throughout the body. It brings a quick high that may feel similar to being drunk or may even cause a feeling of euphoria. Lightheadedness and confusion are other common side effects.
Because the effect disappears so quickly, users want to do it repeatedly. Each time a person inhales canned air, he is putting himself at risk for many different dangers, including death. A person can die from their first time or tenth time huffing from Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome. It’s when an inhalant causes heart failure. It can happen to anyone at any time.
Long term use can result in damage to the area of the brain that controls memory. It can further damage tissues in the brain that can affect motor skills and coordination. A person who huffs canned air regularly may lose weight, weaken muscles and damage their kidneys and liver. Most of these effects are irreversible.
In 2015, a 40-year-old man in Michigan addicted to huffing experienced an unusual side effect. After inhaling three cans of canned air over a four-hour period, his lips and throat swelled up. He couldn’t breathe or swallow. Doctors had to put him on a ventilator to help him breathe. He had developed a condition known as angioedema, which is rare in cases of huffing. During treatment, his neck continued to swell, then his skin developed blisters that oozed with fluid.
Canned air contains difluoroethane, a chemical used in refrigerant and other coolants, that caused his tissues to develop frostbite. He recovered after a round of antibiotics to ward off infection, and steroids and antihistamines to manage the inflammation.
The doctor who treated him, Dr. Amanda Winston, is an internal medicine and pediatrics resident at Hurley Medical Center. She co-authored a medical report on the incident because the case was so rare. She said of inhalant abuse, “It's a quick, cheap, and easy high. It happens in all age groups, and it's dangerous to the point of life-threatening."
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