What Does Huffing a Sharpie Really Do to Your Brain?

It’s all about weighing the lame high against the possible debilitating brain damage

If you made it through middle school without once holding a Sharpie under your nose, bless your pure and gentle heart. But if you were like most of us curious kids, you might recall the mediocre and deeply disappointing high that results from vigorously sniffing a permanent marker. Looking back, I have a fondness for these destructive and careless times, but I also wonder what was going on in my childish brain during those bewildering seconds after breathing a bunch of marker gas, and whether that has left an impact on my brain to this day.

So I put the lid on my beloved Sharpie and called up inhalant expert Ruben Baler of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, who specializes in the neurobiology of drugs. He explains that while research on inhalants (like Sharpies) and how they impact the brain is somewhat limited, we do know the culprit behind that unsatisfying high — volatile organic compounds, which are added to permanent markers because they evaporate and help the ink dry. “In general, they have an inhibitor effect on the brain, very much like sedatives or alcohol,” says Baler. Inhaling them slows down the brain, which results in symptoms like slurred speech, loss of coordination, nausea and so on. 

Ah, middle school.

During the actual act of inhaling a Sharpie, these compounds also replace the oxygen that would normally supply your brain, which can result in hypoxia, a general lack of oxygen that causes confusion, dizziness and rapid breathing, all of which contribute to that befuddled high feeling.

Now watch as a wild and crazy dude on YouTube sniffs a bunch of permanent markers until he almost passes out and decides that drugs are dumb:


Considering how mild and lame a Sharpie-induced high tends to be, the negatives are potentially shockingly serious. You could literally and spontaneously die: Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome is a real thing that happens when your organs go into shock and shut down after inhaling volatile organic substances. Of course, this is much more likely to happen while huffing the likes of butane, propane and chemicals in aerosols, particularly during sessions of prolonged sniffing, rather than after a quick sniff of a Sharpie. Even then, though, it’s a relatively rare occurrence: According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse website, “Based on independent studies performed over a 10-year period in three different states, the number of inhalant-related fatalities in the United States is approximately 100 to 200 per year.” 

They do emphasize, however, that Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome “can result from a single session of inhalant use by an otherwise healthy young person,” so just be careful out there, even with that weak-ass Sharpie.

In the long-term, huffing volatile organic compounds degrades your brain, diminishing your ability to think. “They can kill neurons, slow down communication and destroy the myelin, the insulating material around the nerves that allows for the efficient transmission of nerve impulses,” explains Baler. The result is swift and severe: During a study of air quality in the workplace, participants performed a whopping 61 percent better on cognitive tests on days when there were fewer volatile organic compounds in the air — and Sharpies provide a much more concentrated dose of these brain-bashing compounds. “These are toxic compounds, and they were never intended to be used internally,” Baler emphasizes.

Welp, for me, it seems the damage is already done. *orders king-size Sharpie and waits by mailbox*