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What Is Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome?

Teen boy holding a can of spray paint out in front of him  

It is not uncommon for teens to experiment with many different types of drugs. Drugs like alcohol and marijuana are common because they are more easily accessible than other drugs. Most parents are somewhat familiar with popular drugs and have open discussions with their teens about these drugs. One group of drugs, known as inhalants, may not be as widely known among parents. Thus, having discussions before teens try inhalants does not happen frequently, if at all.

Teens may not be aware of the dangers associated with using inhalant drugs, like sudden sniffing death syndrome. First, what is sudden sniffing death syndrome? Sudden sniffing death syndrome occurs after an individual breathes in an inhalant that contains chemicals like aerosols, solvents, or other highly concentrated chemicals.

What Causes Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome?

What draws teens to using inhalants, especially if they are aware that certain chemicals in the inhalant are not meant for breathing and are potentially dangerous? Teens inhale such products to get high and often do not think about the dangers of inhalants. Sudden sniffing death syndrome is generally caused by inhaling a high concentration of a chemical like butane, propane, nitrous oxide or many others. Sudden sniffing death syndrome symptoms may include:

  • Euphoria
  • Hallucinations
  • Slurred speech
  • Dizziness or vertigo
  • Becoming disoriented
  • Falling asleep
  • Headaches
  • Low blood pressure
  • Flushing
  • Feeling warm/sweating
  • Respiratory arrest
  • Rapid heartbeat or slow heartbeat
  • Prolonged sniffing
  • Asphyxiation
  • Suffocation
  • Shaking (convulsions)
  • Seizures
  • Becoming comatose
  • Choking
  • Seriously injuring oneself
  • Death

It is important to note that sudden sniffing death syndrome can occur any time a teen uses an inhalant, even if it is their first time. It cannot be predicted in advance whether a teen will have a dangerous reaction to an inhalant. Thus, teens that choose to use drug inhalants are putting their lives at risk every single time. Additionally, more research must be conducted on this phenomenon as there are many different types of inhalants, some less common than others.

Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome Statistics

Research publications on the topic of sudden sniffing death syndrome are fewer and further between than other more well-known conditions. Though it is currently not well understood by the research community, there are some available statistics on sudden sniffing death syndrome. Parents may wonder, “How many teens use inhalants?” Some statistics on use include:

  • In a Canadian survey from 2004, 1.3% of Canadians over 15 years of age reported lifetime inhalant use, up from 0.8% in 1994.
  • In a United States survey from 2007, 1.1% of children between the ages of 12-13 first reported using inhalants.
  • 10.7% of respondents from the 2007 survey reported that inhalants were the first drug they abused.
  • Inhalant use is more common in certain communities (Aboriginals, the homeless, those in jail, among high-school drop-outs and among individuals who have been abused).

What about the death rate from inhalants in the United States? Different states have found similar death rates from inhalant abuse that range from 100-200 deaths per year. It should be stated that inhalant use may be underreported, especially in certain communities across the United States, thus reported rates of use and death rates may be less than the actual rates.

Preventing Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome

Inhalant abuse can cause death by affecting a teen’s heart rate, their ability to breathe and the ability of their brain to function normally. Is there any way to prevent sudden sniffing death syndrome? The only way to directly prevent sudden sniffing death syndrome is to never use inhalants. It also may be advantageous to enact drug prevention programs for middle schoolers.

Parents can also have open discussions with their teens about why using inhalants is more dangerous than using other common drugs. Parents should encourage their teens to call 911 in the event of an emergency or for suspected sudden sniffing death syndrome. The fear of getting in trouble should never outweigh getting emergency help for oneself, friends or even strangers.

Does your teen struggle with inhalant abuse? Are you scared about sudden sniffing death syndrome or want to find out more information about this condition? Call Next Generation Village today to speak with a representative about recovery programs specially designed for teens. Next Generation Village offers comprehensive care for teen drug addiction and any co-occurring mental health conditions.

Medical Disclaimer: Next Generation Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.


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