Inhalants

Inhalants refer to substances used to alter one’s mood or mental state exclusively through inhalation. The exclusivity of use distinguishes inhalants from other drugs that users inhale, but may also use by other means. Another big distinction between inhalants and other substances used to get “high” are that inhalants often have other, legal uses. In fact, you may find inhalants in everyday households.  

Common inhalants include paint thinner, glue, cleaning fluids, gasoline and even magic markers. Most inhalants affect the central nervous system, slowing down brain activity to create feelings of euphoria, relaxation and dizziness. However, these drugs also have serious side-effects, including seizures, loss of consciousness and even death. Because inhalants are typically legal products, they post a particular danger to adolescents and teens, who may find them easier to obtain than alcohol or illicit drugs like marijuana. According to recent government statistics, the largest segment of users are between ages 12 and 17.

What are inhalants?

Inhalants fall under four categories: solvents, aerosols, gases and nitrates. The first three categories affect the central nervous system. Users take these drugs to achieve a “high,” similar to that of alcohol or other drugs. Nitrates affect the body differently. Users take these drugs to enhance sexual experiences. Below is a deeper look at each category:   

Solvents

Solvents include some of the most easily obtained inhalants, including magic markers, glue, correctional fluid like White-Out, paint thinner and lighter fluid. Gasoline and dry-cleaning fluids are also considered solvents.

Aerosols

Aerosols refer to sprays in a pressurized can that are released with propellant gas. Examples include spray paint, certain hairsprays, spray-on deodorants, and off-stick cooking sprays. Some cleaning sprays, such as “air in a can” to clean computer keyboards, can also be aerosol inhalants.  

Gase

There are two types of gas inhalants. The first refers to household products, such as propane tanks, butane lighters, and certain food dispensers, such as whipped cream cans or canned cheese. The second refers to medical gases, such as chloroform or nitrous oxide, also known as “laughing gas.”

Nitrates

Nitrates refer to compounds called amyl, butyl, and cyclohexyl. Although the Consumer Product Safety Commission has banned the use of nitrates in consumer products, the substance persists in small doses in a variety of legal products. Users seek them in video head cleaner, leather cleaner, room odorizer and liquid aroma. Doctors may also use nitrates to treat heart problems and angina.  

What are the risks of using inhalants?

Most inhalants affect the central nervous system, disrupting communication between the brain’s receptors. This slowed-down brain function leads to feelings of relaxation, euphoria and impaired cognition with effects similar to alcohol. Nitrates have a slightly different effect, expanding and relaxing blood vessels to heighten sensory reception, which is why they are used as a sexual enhancement.

Because the lungs distribute inhalants quickly throughout the body, the chemical effects can occur within seconds. Aside from a feeling of relaxation, users may slur their speech and experience difficulties with balance and coordination. Less pleasant side-effects may include nausea, vomiting, hallucinations or delusions. Large quantities of gas or solvent inhalants can result in a loss of feeling, followed by a loss of consciousness. The effects of a “hit” or single inhale are typically short-lived, requiring increasing quantities to maintain a high. Repeated sessions can cause headaches, dizziness and confusion.

The long-term effects of inhalants depend on the chemicals inhaled. Some are processed by the body quickly and have little lasting effect. Others, however, can be absorbed by fatty tissue in the brain and central nervous system. These chemicals can cause serious damage to the liver, kidneys and even bone marrow. In some cases, inhalants can cut off oxygen to the brain, causing brain damage.

Is it possible to overdose on inhalants?

Not only is it possible to overdose from inhalants, but a fatal overdose can occur after a single use. “Sudden sniffing death,” a recognized risk associated with solvents and aerosols, occurs when a high, diverse concentration of chemicals overwhelms the heart, causing sudden cardiac arrest. Indirect overdose, such as suffocation with a plastic bag can cause suffocation, is also a risk. Moreover, decreased situational awareness puts users at greater risk of injury or accidents, such as falling. While high, users may engage in unsafe activities like driving or having unsafe sex.  

How do I know if a loved one is using inhalants?

Because most users of inhalants are minors, it is important for parents and family members to recognize the signs of use. Listen for common terms, such as sniffing, huffing, bagging or snorting, and be mindful of how you store and track substances that may be used to inhale. It is also important to communicate with adolescents and teens about the dangers of using inhalants.

Inhalants and Addiction

Although inhalants are not typically addictive, some people can indeed experience a physical need to use and withdrawal symptoms when they stop. Others may become addicted to the feeling of being “high” or the habit of using inhalants as a way to relieve stress. In both cases, it is important to seek treatment. Aside from the dangerous side-effects, inhalants are also a common gateway drug, leading to alcohol and drug use later in life. Early intervention and treatment can help those who have become dependent on inhalants, whether physically or emotionally, to avoid later drug use by providing the tools to manage stress and guidance toward healthy living.