Recognizing Inhalant Abuse

In 2013, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) found that over 500,000 Americans aged 12 and older tried an inhalant drug for the first time in the past year, and almost half of those initiating this type of drug abuse were under the age of 18. Inhalants make up a class of drug that refers to everyday, and often legal, household products that contain volatile substances. These substances have psychoactive properties when they are inhaled, per the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

Inhalants may be “huffed” or breathed in through the nose and/or mouth, sniffed, or sprayed into the nose or mouth. Fumes may be breathed in after soaking chemicals on a rag, or by inhaling fumes out of a bag or balloon. According the to the 2015 Monitoring the Future Survey published by NIDA, almost 10 percent of 8th graders had tried inhalants in their lifetime. Inhalants usually fall into four main categories:  aerosols, gases, nitrates, and volatile solvents.
The following are examples of inhalants:
Aerosols: solvent or propellant sprays

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

Gases: commercial and household products or medical products

  • Butane lighters
  • Refrigerants gases
  • Whip cream aerosol dispensers (called whippets)
  • Propane tanks
  • Chloroform
  • Air conditioner gas (Freon)
  • Nitrous oxide (laughing gas)
  • Ether
  • Halothane
  • Helium

Nitrates: commonly used for sexual enhancement

  • Amyl nitrates (called poppers or snappers)
  • Butyl nitrates (called rushlocker room, bolt, buzz, and climax)
  • Cyclohexyl nitrites
  • Sold as video head cleanerliquid aromaroom odorizer, and leather cleaner

Volatile solvents: liquid products that vaporize when they reach room temperature

  • Gasoline
  • Paint thinner
  • Paint remover
  • Lighter fluid
  • Felt-tip marker fluid
  • Correction fluid
  • Glue
  • Shoe polish
  • Dry cleaning fluid
  • Degreasers
  • Nail polish remover
  • Rubber cement

According to the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition (NIPC), there are more than 1,000 products that may be abused as inhalants with potentially dangerous consequences.

Dangers of Abusing Inhalants

Sniffing an inhalant even one time may be fatal, causing the heart to stop, which is called sudden sniffing death syndromeABC News reports. When using a plastic bag or balloon to inhale these substances, death by asphyxiation may also occur. Other side effects of inhalant abuse may include nausea and vomiting in the short-term. More serious health concerns include kidney and liver damage, bone marrow damage, hearing loss, and loss of muscle coordination due to damage to the myelin, which is the protective covering around nerve fibers. Prolonged lack of oxygen to the brain that inhalant abuse may cause may also lead to brain damage. Inhaling drugs can also damage the tissues and mucus membranes of the nose and throat, potentially causing burns around the nose and mouth.

Nitrates are often used to enhance sexual experiences and their use may lead to risky sexual encounters that may increase the odds of contracting a sexually transmitted disease, such as hepatitis or HIV/AIDS. Another potential side effect of inhalant abuse is the possibility of becoming addicted to these drugs. Addiction negatively affects almost all aspects of a person’s life, including physical and emotional wellbeing, school and/or work performance, and relationships with family and friends.

Abusing inhalants at a young age may increase the risk for addiction later in life, and inhalants may serve as “gateway” drugs to other illicit substances, CBS News reports. Abusing drugs before the brain is fully developed may damage brain regions that are responsible for regulating emotions, controlling impulses, and making sound decisions, making it more likely for an individual to struggle with addiction later in life, NIDAreports.

Recognizing Inhalant Abuse

Most inhalants, with the exception of nitrates, are central nervous system depressants. Individuals intoxicated on these depressants may resemble someone who is drunk, slurring their speech and falling down. They may have poor muscle control, be dizzy, have lowered inhibitions, be drowsy, and feel increased pleasure. Lightheadedness, hallucinations, and delusions may be side effects of inhalant abuse, as well as mood swings and a lingering headache.

Nitrates dilate blood vessels in order to enhance sexual pleasure and reduce blood pressure while raising heart rate and producing increased awareness, feelings of warmth, muscle relaxation, lightheadedness, and increasing excitement, the Global Information Network About Drugs (GINAD) reports. Someone intoxicated from “poppers” may appear flushed (red in the face), giddy, and laugh without cause. Nitrates usually come in liquid form in small vials or bottles.

Highs from most inhalants are typically rather short-lived, lasting only a few minutes, which may encourage someone abusing them to take several doses back to back in order to extend the euphoric feelings.

Behavioral changes may also be evident in those who are abusing inhalants. Mood swings between “high” when intoxicated and “low” when sober may be typical. Individuals abusing inhalants may stop engaging in activities that used to be important to them and may withdraw socially and become secretive. In addition, they may appear to not be themselves, and a shift in personality as well as changes in sleeping and eating patterns may be evident. They may get into trouble at school or work, or even have run-ins with the law.

Loved ones may notice empty aerosol or other volatile chemical product containers in the trash or the person’s belongings. Other physical evidence may be present, such as missing household products, soaked rags, paper or plastic bags, and stains on a person’s clothing, along with a kind of chemical odor surrounding the person or on clothing. Sometimes, the chemicals used may burn the skin, and inflammation of the nose, mouth, and in the throat may be noticeable as well.

Different age demographics may abuse different types of inhalants. For example, NIDA reports that people who start using inhalants between the ages of 12 and 15 are more likely to sniff spray paint, lighter fluid, shoe polish, glue, or gasoline, while those between 16 and 17 are more likely to try whippets or laughing gas. Adults most commonly use poppers.

Treatment Options for Inhalant Abuse

Inhalant abuse may be the result of peer pressure or teenage experimentation, but it also may indicate a deeper issue that can be uncovered and addressed with treatment. Abusing an inhalant can have deadly consequences even when tried just once. Education and prevention methods may be key in helping individuals and families to understand the dangers these seemingly innocuous products may possess.

When someone suffers from addiction to inhalants or other drugs, withdrawal symptoms – such as depression, anxiety, irritability, trouble concentrating and general mental cloudiness, insomnia, nausea, sweating, muscle aches, headache, restlessness, drug cravings,  and trouble feeling pleasure – may occur as the drugs leave the system.

Behavioral therapies and counseling are helpful tools in discovering what potential triggers may encourage someone to abuse inhalants and in teaching new and healthier ways to manage those triggers in the future. If people have been abusing various drugs for a long time, their brains may be dependent on them, and medical detox is the safest way to remove the drugs and move forward into recovery.

These symptoms can be managed through medical detox, sometimes with the help of medications, vitamins, or supplements, under the watchful eye of medical professionals in a specialized facility.

Detox is only part of a comprehensive treatment plan. It should be followed by a thorough therapeutic treatment program to address the psychological issues that led to substance abuse and addiction.

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Editorial Staff
Editorial Staff, American Addiction Centers
The editorial staff of Greenhouse Treatment Center is comprised of addiction content experts from American Addiction Centers. Our editors and medical reviewers have over a decade of cumulative experience in medical content editing and have reviewed... Read More