Recognizing Inhalant Abuse


In 2018, approximately 2.0 million people (0.7% of the population) aged 12 or older used inhalants in an effort to get high during the past year.1 Although many drugs can be inhaled, an “inhalant” refers to products that can only be inhaled.2

These products contain chemicals generally not intended to be inhaled, however, doing so produces a psychoactive, mind-altering affect.2 Inhalants may be “huffed” or breathed in through the nose and/or mouth, sniffed, or sprayed into the nose or mouth.2 Fumes may be breathed in after soaking chemicals on a rag, or by inhaling fumes out of a bag or balloon.

The intoxicating effect doesn’t last long and inhalants are mostly misused by young kids and teens.1,2 In fact, inhalants are the only class of substance used more by younger than by older teens.2 According to the 2019 Monitoring the Future Study, 4.7% of 8th graders misused inhalants in the past year compared to 2.8% of 10th graders and only 0.9% of 12th graders.3

A large number of common products found in homes and offices can be misused as inhalants, although others have a distinct commercial or medical purpose.2 In general, inhalants can be divided into four main categories: aerosols, gases, nitrites, and volatile solvents.4

Aerosols that contain propellants and solvents, including:4

  • Spray paint.
  • Deodorant spray.
  • Hairspray.
  • Spray fabric protector.
  • Vegetable oil or cooking spray.

Gases used in commercial and household products or medical products, including:4

  • Butane lighters.
  • Refrigerants.
  • Propane tanks.
  • Medical anesthetics (such as ether, chloroform, halothane and nitrous oxide—or “laughing gas,” which is also sometimes found in whipped cream dispensers).

Volatile solvents are liquid products that vaporize when they reach room temperature, including:4

  • Gasoline.
  • Paint thinner/remover.
  • Felt-tip markers.
  • Correction fluid.
  • Glues.
  • Degreasers.
  • Nail polish remover.

Nitrites differ from the other categories of inhalants, which act on the body’s central nervous system. Commonly used for sexual enhancement as well as to relieve chest pain in medical environments, nitrites (amyl nitrites, butyl nitrites, cyclohexyl nitrites) primarily dilate blood vessels and relax muscles. They are sometimes referred to as “poppers” or “snappers” and may be sold as:4

  • Video head cleaner.
  • Liquid aroma.
  • Room odorizer.
  • Leather cleaner.

Effects of Inhalant Use

The chemicals found in volatile solvents, aerosol sprays and gasses may produce several short-term intoxicating effects, including:5

  • Impaired judgment and functioning in work or social situations.
  • Dizziness and lack of coordination.
  • Drowsiness.
  • Slurred speech.
  • Slowed reflexes and general muscle weakness.
  • Headache.
  • Euphoria or giddiness.
  • Nausea and vomiting.

Nitrites produce different effects, including:5

  • Increased heart rate.
  • Excitability.
  • Skin flushing and feeling of body warmth.
  • Dizziness and headache.

Dangers of Abusing Inhalants

Exposure to high doses of volatile solvents, aerosols and gasses can cause confusion and delirium.5 Prolonged sniffing of inhalants, particularly butane, propane and chemicals in aerosols—even in a single session—can cause irregular and rapid heartbeats that lead to heart failure in a syndrome termed “sudden sniffing death.”6

Inhalant abuse can also lead to death in other ways, including:6

  • Asphyxiation.
  • Suffocation.
  • Convulsions or seizures.
  • Choking.
  • Coma.
  • Fatal motor vehicle crashes or other accidents experienced while intoxicated.

Inhalants include many highly toxic chemicals and regular or heavy use may cause damage to the brain and nervous system as well as to vital organs such as the heart, lungs, liver and kidneys.6

Use during pregnancy can lead to developmental damage in infants and children, including skeletal abnormalities, delayed neurobehavioral development, and even altered regulation of metabolism and body development.6

Nitrites may lead to risky sexual encounters that may increase the odds of contracting a sexually transmitted disease, such as hepatitis or HIV/AIDS.7

Although use of inhalants appears to be a passing childhood fad for some, studies have associated inhalant use with mental illnesses, including antisocial personality disorder, criminal activity, and use of multiple drugs.8 It also appears to be a strong predictor of future drug use:

  • One study found that youth who had used inhalants by age 16 were nine times more likely to use heroin by age 32 vs. youth who had not used inhalants.9
  • Another study associated a history of inhalant use with a person being more than five times more likely to become a person who injects drugs.10
  • The same study showed that inhalant use was a stronger predictor of becoming a future drug injector vs. marijuana.10

Preventing Inhalant Abuse

Inhalant abuse may be the result of youthful experimentation, but it also can have severe consequences—from future substance abuse to major organ damage or even sudden death. Education about how harmful these seemingly innocuous products can be may help prevent their misuse.

References 

  1. Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. (2019). Key substance use and mental health indicators in the United States: Results from the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (HHS Publication No. PEP19‑5068, NSDUH Series H‑54). 
  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2017). DrugFacts: Inhalants.
  3. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2019). Drugs of Abuse: Inhalants.
  4. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2012). What are inhalants?
  5. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2012). What are the short- and long-term effects of inhalant use?
  6. NationalInstitute on Drug Abuse. (2012). What are the other medical consequences of inhalant abuse? 
  7. Scott, H. M., Vittinghoff, E., Irvin, R., Sachdev, D., Liu, A., Gurwith, M., & Buchbinder, S. P. (2014). Age, race/ethnicity, and behavioral risk factors associated with per contact risk of HIV infection among men who have sex with men in the United StatesJournal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes (1999), 65(1), 115–121. 
  8. Miller, S. C., Fiellin, D. A., Rosenthal, R. N., & Saitz, R. (2019). The ASAM Principles of Addiction Medicine, Sixth Edition. Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer.
  9. Johnson, E. O., Schütz, C. G., Anthony, J. C., & Ensminger, M. E. (1995). Inhalants to heroin: a prospective analysis from adolescence to adulthoodDrug and Alcohol Dependence, 40(2), 159–164. 
  10. Schütz, C. G., Chilcoat, H. D., & Anthony, J. C. (1994). The association between sniffing inhalants and injecting drugsComprehensive Psychiatry, 35(2), 99–105. 


About The Contributor

Ryan Kelley, NREMT
Ryan Kelley, NREMT

Medical Editor, American Addiction Centers

Ryan Kelley is a nationally registered Emergency Medical Technician and the former managing editor of the Journal of Emergency Medical Services (JEMS). During his time at JEMS, Ryan developed Mobile Integrated Healthcare in Action, a series... Read More


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