Inhalants are a category of chemicals that are inhaled to get high. These include household and industrial chemicals not designed for human consumption, along with some gaseous analgesics.
There are many risks associated with this form of substance abuse.
What Are Inhalants?
The term inhalants covers several volatile substances that may be abused to get high.
Teenagers and preteens are more likely to engage in this form of substance abuse. They can easily find these substances in their homes. It’s tougher for young people to get their hands on other recreational drugs, like alcohol, marijuana, and prescription drugs.
The chemicals in inhalants can quickly lead to oxygen deprivation, seizures, heart failure, and other problems. Rather than getting high, users might die.
How Inhalants Are Abused
Inhalants are volatile chemicals, like household cleaners or industrial solvents. They are not designed for human consumption, and their fumes can be quite dangerous.
The most common method to abuse inhalants is to breathe the chemical in, which is how this group of substances received its name. Methods of abusing volatile chemicals include:
- Sniffing or snorting fumes by opening the container.
- Spraying the chemical directly into the nose or mouth.
- Spraying or dripping the chemical into a paper or plastic bag and then inhaling the fumes.
- Putting the chemical on a rag, and then placing the rag over the nose or mouth and inhaling.
- Taking balloons filled with nitrous oxide and breathing the chemical in.
The high from inhalants lasts only a few minutes, but damage can occur quickly and last for a lifetime.
Anyone who abuses inhalants is at risk of harming their brains and bodies. Most people who abuse these substances are teenagers, who are still growing. This means they are at risk of suffering brain damage and bodily harm that could change their growth.
According to the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), there were about 793,000 people in the United States, ages 12 and older, who abused inhalants. Of these, 68.4 percent were under the age of 18.
These volatile chemicals are some of the easiest substances for adolescents to find and abuse. While inhalant abuse has declined since the 1990s, the prevalence is still highest among adolescents who are 12 to 17 years old — one of the most important periods of brain growth in a young person’s life.
A 2015 report found that 684,000 adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 had abused inhalants. Girls were more likely than boys to abuse these substances. Felt-tip pens or magic markers were the most common sources of inhalants.
About 59 percent of the group reported that they abused inhalants anywhere from 1 to 11 days in the past year. While most kids’ inhalant abuse is infrequent, it is still very dangerous.
Some types of inhalants, like nitrous oxide, are found in dental clinics. Dentists, dental hygienists, and dental assistants are more likely to abuse these inhalants than others.
A type of inhalant called poppers, which is a colloquialism for amyl nitrite, is widely abused in the party scene, especially among gay men. The chemical eases pain and relaxes smooth muscles, making some types of sexual activity easier.
There are other factors that may impact whether a teenager or preteen begins abusing any substance. These groups are more likely to engage in substance abuse:
- Those in adverse socioeconomic situations
- Those who have a history of child abuse
- Those with poor grades, high truancy rates, or who have dropped out of school
Types of Inhalant Chemicals
There are four main groups of inhalants that are abused.
- Volatile solvents: These are chemicals that vaporize at room temperature. They are usually in inexpensive household products or industrial chemicals.Examples include degreasers, glue, paint thinner, paint remover, fluids used in dry cleaning, gasoline, correction fluid for white paper, and felt-tip markers, especially those labeled “permanent.”
- Aerosols: This group includes propellants and solvents that are pressurized in spray cans with a nozzle push to release them in a vapor.This includes spray paint, deodorant, hairspray, vegetable oils, fabric protector and freshener sprays, and air fresheners.
- Gases: There are two kinds of gasses: household or commercial products and medical anesthetics.Nitrous oxide, or “laughing gas,” is most often administered in dental clinics, where dentists or nurses may also abuse the substance. Other medical anesthetics include chloroform and halothane. Nitrous oxide may also be abused in the form of whippets, or taking a hit from a whipped cream canister.Household and commercial gases include butane for lighters, propane for gas tanks, and refrigerants.
- Nitrites: While most inhalants are household or industrial chemicals, nitrites are a different category. They are more widely abused by young adults, especially gay men, while other inhalants are more often abused by adolescents.Rather than acting on the central nervous system for only a few minutes, nitrites dilate blood vessels and relax muscles, leading to a sense of relaxation. When abused for recreational reasons, nitrites are called poppers or snappers because of how the small bottles are opened.Chemicals sold for recreational use in this group include cyclohexyl nitrite, isoamyl (amyl) nitrite, and isobutyl (butyl) nitrite. These are prohibited by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), but they may still be sold legally when they are labeled “not for human consumption.”
For the most part, all these chemicals impact the brain and body for 15 to 45 seconds. The effects of nitrites and nitrous oxide may last longer, but they are still harmful chemicals.
Some people may think the “head rush” is worth it, even though they are at risk of sudden death or long-term physical damage. Many users simply aren’t aware of the risks.
Signs of Inhalant Abuse
If your child or teenager is abusing inhalants, there are a few signs that can indicate their dangerous habit.
- Hidden rags, cloths, or bags with a chemical smell
- Containers of household products that seem to empty much faster than expected
- Stains or paint smears on clothing
- Constantly smelling their sleeves or other parts of their clothes
- Keeping a marker nearby or near their face
- Chemical odors coming from their breath or clothes
- Slurred or incoherent speech
- Changes in behavior, like eating or sleeping habits
- Appearing drunk or dazed
- Nausea and loss of appetite
- Rashes around the nose or mouth
- Loss of coordination and lack of attentiveness
- Depression or anxiety
Risks of Inhalant Abuse
Inhalant abuse can cause immediate, lasting damage, even after just one use.
It is known that volatile household or industrial chemicals are dangerous. Breathing in these chemicals is the same as breathing in other kinds of poison — they are toxic. While cleaning or working in factories, people who use many of these products wear protective gear, including masks and gloves, because these substances can be so harmful.
Abusing chemical inhalants may lead to a short-term effect like an intense opioid high or being very drunk, but there is a high risk of sudden death. Abusing inhalants several times increases your risk of death too.
Effects can include the following:
- Damage to the acoustic nerves and muscles, leading to hearing loss
- Oxygen deprivation, caused by blood cells being unable to carry oxygen
- Damage to bone marrow, leading to leukemia
- Damage to the cerebral cortex and cerebellum, which causes personality changes, hallucinations, memory impairment, loss of coordination, and slurred speech
- Heart failure, called sudden sniffing death syndrome (SSDS)
- Kidney failure, as the kidneys can no longer pull acid out of the blood
- Kidney stones
- Accumulation of fatty tissue on the liver, leading to cirrhosis
- Impaired breathing from inhaling toxic chemicals
- Muscle deterioration
- Damage to the peripheral nerves, leading to numbness, pain, tingling, or paralysis in the extremities
- Rash around the nose and mouth, which can become infected
Both short-term and long-term inhalant abuse has been known to cause brain damage from several sources, which can be particularly hard on an adolescent brain.
Sustained inhalant abuse, especially of nitrites or nitrous oxide, can cause withdrawal symptoms when the person attempts to stop. Withdrawal symptoms may include the following:
- Rapid pulse
- Hand tremors
- Physical agitation
Treatment to Overcome Inhalant Abuse
Inhalants are dangerous chemicals, and repeated use of some can lead to physical dependence. Detox programs can manage withdrawal symptoms and keep you physically and emotionally safe.
Once you complete detox, a rehabilitation program is the next step. There, you’ll get therapy to help you understand problematic behavioral patterns and make changes. With the right help, you can stay healthy and sober.
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What Is the Scope of Inhalant Abuse? (July 2012). National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).
Understanding Adolescent Inhalant Abuse. (June 2017). Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Inhalant Abuse. United States Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).
Inhalant Abuse: Is Your Child at Risk? (January 2018). Mayo Clinic.
Inhalants. (October 2013). Center for Substance Abuse Research (CESAR).
Parents: Know About Inhalant Abuse. National Capital Poison Center.