Inhalants are a class of substances abused by inhalation. These often include those substances which are typically only inhaled when used. The chemical vapors are inhaled and will produce a psychoactive (mind-altering) effect. The high is often very quick to occur and lasts only for a short time. Hundreds of household products (as well as other products) can be abused and fall under inhalants.
There are many different types of inhalants, but we can classify them into four different kinds.
Volatile solvents: These are liquids that vaporize at room temperature. They are found in a multitude of household and industrial products.
Aerosols: These are sprays that contain fuels or solvents.
Gases: These are gases found in household or industrial products as well as medical anesthesia gases.
Nitrites: These are chemical compounds used in medicine for angina and other heart-related symptoms and an antidote for cyanide poisoning. They are often sold as regular products like leather polish.
|Type of Inhalant||Examples of Products|
|Volatile solvents||Correction fluids, dry-cleaning fluids, electronic contact cleaners, felt-tip marker fluid, gasoline, glue, lighter fluid, nail polish remover, paint removers, paint thinners|
|Aerosols||Aerosol computer cleaning products, deodorant spray, hair spray, spray paint, vegetable oil sprays|
|Gases||Butane lighters, chloroform, ether, nitrous oxide, propane tanks, whipped cream aerosols or dispensers|
|Nitrites||Video head cleaner, room odorizer, leather cleaner, leather polish, liquid aroma|
How are inhalants abused?
Because of the wide variety of products that can be used, the methods of inhalation will vary.
- If the product comes in spray form, some users will spray it directly in their mouth or nose (a method called dusting).
- Some people will inhale the vapors or fumes of a product straight from the container (a method called sniffing or snorting).
- Some users will use a plastic or paper bag and spray/put the substance inside the bag and inhale it (a method called bagging).
- Users will sometimes soak a rag in their substance of choice and hold it over their nose or mouth and inhale it that way (a method called huffing).
- Users will sometimes inhale it from a balloon for nitrous oxide since the substance is often pressurized and gets very cold.
Street Names of Inhalants
The street names for inhalants can vary depending on the actual product abused. Here are some of them.
- Air blast
- Bullet Bolt
- Buzz bomb
- Hippie crack
- Laughing gas
- Moon gas
- Poor Man’s Pot
- Rush Snappers
- Satan’s secret
- Texas shoe shine
- Toilet Water
A brief history of inhalants
The inhalation fumes or vapors that alter one’s mind has been around for centuries. In ancient times, it is often recorded as part of religious ceremonies. Nitrous oxide was discovered in 1772, and its use was made popular by Humphrey Davy, English physician Thomas Beddoes’ assistant. He would do demonstrations of the gas being administered to subjects and showing the intoxicating effects of it. Throughout the 1900s, recreational use of ether, gasoline, and other solvents became more popular, especially with teenagers.
Effects of inhalants on the mind and body
When a person inhales a substance, toxic chemicals go into the lungs and rapidly go into the bloodstream and the brain. This produces a quick high that doesn’t last very long unless the person continues to inhale the substance. Most of the inhalants act as a depressant on the central nervous system, much like alcohol.
Inhaling solvents can produce the following short-term effects:
- Feeling giddy
- Impaired judgment
- Loss of coordination
- Muscle weakness
- Slowed reflexes
- Slurred Speech
Inhaling nitrous oxide can produce the following effects:
- Delayed and slurred speech
- Lack of reaction (to loud noises, to people talking, etc.)
- Loss of balance
- Loss of time perception
Inhaling nitrites can produce the following effects:
- Dilated blood vessels
- Increased heart rate
- Sensation of heat
Long Effects and Dangers Associated with Inhalants
Abusing inhalants carries severe risks that should not be taken lightly. Here are some of the long-term effects of inhalant abuse.
- bloodshot eyes
- bone marrow damage
- breathing problems
- changes to heart muscle and heartbeat
- hearing loss
- impaired thinking
- increased risk of leukemia
- kidney damage
- limb spasms
- liver damage
- liver disease
- loss of brain tissue
- loss of coordination
- nose bleeds
- pale skin
- reduced ability of blood to carry oxygen to the brain and body
- reproductive problems
- serious burn injuries
- vision loss
- weakened immune system
It should be noted that the health problem mentioned above will sometimes resolve once the person stops abusing inhalants. However, sometimes the damage is permanent. There are also other dangers related to inhalant abuse.
- Asphyxiation, choking, and suffocation: Asphyxiation can happen when a person inhales fumes repeatedly, which can displace the oxygen present in the lungs. Choking can happen (such as choking on one’s vomit), especially if one has fainted. Suffocation can occur when one uses a plastic bag over their mouth and nose to abuse inhalants.
- Fetal solvent syndrome: Abusing solvents during pregnancy can result in premature birth, congenital disabilities, or stillbirth. The higher the frequency of abuse, the higher the risk.
- Reckless behavior: Abusing inhalants reduces inhibition and distorts one’s perception of self and the world around them. It can make people feel overly confident, which can lead to dangerous and reckless behavior. Some experience depression when abusing inhalants, which can lead to self-destructive or suicidal behavior.
Nitrous oxide carries specific risks when abused.
- Changes in blood pressure: The gas can lead to blood pressure changes and can even cause someone to pass out because of it.
- Frostbite: Nitrous oxide is a very cold gas as it is released and can freeze the user’s skin.
- Lack of oxygen: Sniffing pure nitrous oxide starves the body of oxygen. This can lead to a condition known as hypoxia and can damage one’s brain and other organs. If the lack of oxygen lasts too long, the damage can be permanent. This has proven fatal for some people.
- Loss of motor control: People who use nitrous oxide while standing can fall and hurt themselves. This is compounded by the fact that there is often a loss of sensation when inhaling nitrous oxide.
- Nerve damage: Nitrous oxide has been shown to render the B12 vitamin in the body inactive, therefore inducing a B12 vitamin deficiency. This can create numbness in the hands and feet and can lead to nerve damage and problems with certain brain functions. Some or all of the damages can be permanent.
Inhalants are especially dangerous when it comes to overdosing because there is no “safe” amount of these chemicals that can be consumed. It is also difficult to gauge precisely what the person is taking, as household and industrial products can contain many chemicals. Some chemicals are much more damaging than others. During an overdose, the chemicals start displacing the oxygen in the body, which leads to a lack of oxygen to vital organs. A lot of the warning signs of inhalant overdose are signs that the brain is lacking oxygen. An overdose can happen even if the person has not been using inhalants for very long.
A danger that has been observed with inhalants is the sudden sniffing death syndrome. When someone uses inhalants, they take in highly concentrated chemicals in a short time. This can cause the heart to beat faster and irregularly and can quickly lead to fatal heart failure (in just a few minutes). It can happen anytime inhalants are abused, even after a single dose.
Here are some of the signs of an inhalant overdose.
- Chest pain
- Irregular heartbeat
- Slurred speech
- Uncontrollable tremors
As soon as someone suspects an overdose, emergency services should be called right away. They will be able to assess the severity of the situation and continually monitor the person. Inhalant overdose can be fatal and should not be taken lightly.
Inhalant Abuse and Addiction
Inhalant abuse can lead to addiction over time. Therefore, it is essential to identify the signs of inhalant abuse to handle it quickly before it leads to something worse, like addiction, overdose, or permanent physical damage. Here are some signs to help identify if someone is using inhalants.
- Drunk appearance
- Lack of coordination
- Purchasing more than average amounts of household or industrial products used as inhalants
- Slurred speech
- Chemical odors clothing
- Loss of appetite
- Paint or other stains on the face, hands, or clothing
- Red eyes
- Runny nose
- Sores around mouth
- Unusual smelling breath (chemical smell)
- Hidden empty spray paint or solvent containers
- Hidden rags or clothing soaked with chemicals
Repeated use of inhalants can bring about different scenarios. A person can develop a physical tolerance to the drugs. In this scenario, they are likely to start using higher quantities of inhalants to try to achieve the same effect. They can also become physically dependent on it. This makes quitting harder because the body itself becomes used to having the drug and functioning with it, so when a person stops taking the drug, they will start having withdrawal symptoms. The body will have trouble working correctly without it. And ultimately, a person can develop an addiction to inhalant where the individual will keep using inhalants no matter the consequences. It can be tough to quit without professional help. Realizing that one has an addiction can be tricky. Here are some of the signs associated with addiction.
- Being unable to stop using inhalants, even if one wishes to
- Borrowing or stealing money to pay for products used as inhalants
- Driving or doing other dangerous things when you are on the drug
- Having trouble doing normal day-to-day activities
- Hiding the inhalant use or the effect it is having
- Spending a lot of your time thinking about inhalants: getting more products, when one will use it next, how it makes one feel
- Still using inhalants even though it brings about consequences in one’s life, like problems with friends, family, school, or work
How to help a loved one is abusing inhalants
If you realize that your child or someone close to you is abusing inhalants, you shouldn't ignore it or put off taking action. Don't wait for the problem to go away. Learn what you can about inhalant abuse and its effects on an individual. Once you understand inhalant abuse and addiction, you can talk to your child or loved one about their problem. It is important not to be confrontational or accuse them. Be honest about their problem, and make it clear that you are here to help them. Inhalant abuse is no joke and can be very damaging and even fatal. Bringing up these points could help make them see that they need to stop.
Boundaries need to be set. This is one way not to support their addiction. If you are dealing with your teenager, cutting off financial assistance can be a good way not to enable their addiction. Since inhalants are usually common household items, it can be a good idea to make sure they are not accessible. Another part is making sure to establish consequences if they keep using inhalants. It would be best if you did not make idle threats, follow through with the consequences, so they feel how unpleasant continuing their inhalant use will be.
If they are resistant to getting help or unable to stop on their own, you should get professional help. If necessary, staging an intervention with a specialist can be very efficient. You can also speak to a professional counselor, such as one of our specialists, to assess whether the problem is just abuse or addiction. They can also help you figure out the best course of treatment and the facilities available in your area. Inhalants are one of the most dangerous drugs to abuse, leading to permanent damage and death.
Inhalant Addiction Rehabilitation
When one quits using inhalants, withdrawal will set in. Here are some of the symptoms that can happen during that period.
- Anger outbursts
- Difficulty concentrating
- Excessive sweating
- Hand tremors
- Increased heart rate
- Loss of appetite
- Mood changes
- Poor concentration
- Poor memory
- Runny nose
- Watery eyes
The symptoms can vary in severity depending on one’s body and the extent and duration of the abuse. Withdrawal can make quitting very hard. One way to make this more comfortable for the person is to go through detoxification with professionals. The options are either inpatient or outpatient detoxification. If the recovering addict has a reliable support system at home, outpatient detoxification can be effective. Without that, the chances of relapse during the withdrawal are much high. This is especially true with inhalants since household products are so easy to obtain.
The duration of detoxification will vary. It will usually be between a week to a few weeks. Once completed, the drugs will have entirely left the person’s system, and the withdrawal symptoms will be mostly over. However, detoxification is just a small part of the recovery process. When dealing with addiction, handling the physical aspect of it is not enough. Handling the psychological aspect of addiction is the key to long-term sobriety.
The central part of rehabilitation is counseling and therapy, which will address the underlying issues related to addiction. Other services can be available at rehabilitation facilities such as family services, vocational services, educational services, etc. All these services are meant to handle the problems that the person can face when re-entering society. The reasons why the person started using inhalants in the first place and continued doing so need to be resolved to prevent the person from relapsing once they go back to their day-to-day life. One of the things that can cause a person to relapse when they have completed rehab (or during rehab if they go back home during it, like outpatient rehabilitation) is triggers. Different things in one’s life can trigger a person to use inhalants again. Treatment needs to give the person the tools necessary to cope with these triggers. These triggers can be situations, places, people, etc.
Once a person finishes treatment, continuing care is important. Good aftercare support can prevent a person from relapsing, especially right after returning to their lives. This can come in various forms, such as a sponsor, a support group, a sober living home, outpatient counseling, etc. Many rehab facilities will have their own continuing care programs to help the person once they complete the program.
Inhalants Abuse and Addiction Statistics
According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health in 2017, over 550,000 people (aged 12 or older) were current users of inhalants, which represent about 0.2% of the population. Of those, 321,000 people were aged 25 or younger. This shows that inhalant abuse is much more common in younger people.
In the 2018 NSDUH, it was estimated that 662,000 adolescents aged 12 to 17 were past-year users of inhalants. This represents 2.7% of all adolescents. An estimated 495,000 young adults (18 to 25 years old) used inhalants in the past year. This represents 1.5% of all young adults. An estimated 846,000 adults 26 years old or older used inhalants in the past year. This represents 0.4% of all adults.
As part of the data in this survey, they looked at the initiation to inhalants. An estimated 576,000 people aged 12 or older had used inhalants for the first time in the past 12 months. This represents an average of about 1,600 people per day who use inhalants for the first time. This number is broken down into the following age groups.
- An estimated 308,000 adolescents aged 12 to 17 used inhalants for the first time in the past year. This represents an average of about 840 adolescents each day who initiated inhalant use.
- An estimated 210,000 young adults aged 18 to 25 used inhalants for the first time in the past year. This represents an average of about 580 young adults each day who initiated inhalant use.
- An estimated 58,000 adults aged 26 or older used inhalants for the first time in the past year. This represents an average of about 160 initiates per day in this age group.
Definitions of common terms related to inhalants
|Huffing||When a person soaks a rag or cloth with a chemical substance and puts it over their nose and/or mouth and inhales the fumes from it.|
|Inhalant addiction||When a person uses inhalants as a habit and gets to a point where ceasing that use causes psychological or physical adverse effects.|
|Inhalant overdose||Where too much chemical substance is inhaled for the body to be able to process it. This can lead to temporary/permanent damage as well as coma and death.|
|Intoxication||Having temporarily diminished mental and physical control because of a substance (such as alcohol, drugs, etc.). Inhalants have an intoxicating effect on the person using them.|
|Nitrous oxide||A colorless gas with a slight metallic scent and taste. It is used medically as a sedative and painkiller and when abused, can make a person feel intoxicated or high.|
|Sudden sniffing death||A form of overdose on inhalants, where the highly concentrated chemicals inhaled cause the heart to beat faster and irregularly and leads to fatal heart failure in just a few minutes. It can happen anytime inhalants are abused, even after a single dose.|