The term inhalant covers any intoxicating chemical vapor that produces mind-altering effects when inhaled. These substances are not abused in other ways, such as smoking, eating, or snorting. In most cases, these substances are not intended for human consumption. They chemicals used as cleaners, paint, or in mechanical applications.
One survey found that over 1,400 types of chemicals were abused as inhalants, including medications and substances intended to cause a high. However, many of the chemicals are common household cleaners or items found in garages.
How Do Inhalants Cause Intoxication?
Many of these chemicals induce a rapid intoxication, or high, with less of a “hangover” afterward. The chemicals are easy to purchase, regardless of age, and they can be easily discarded.
Most inhaled chemicals act like central nervous system (CNS) depressants. Nitrites are the exception, as they dilate blood vessels to stimulate increased blood flow; these chemicals were once used as anesthetics, although they are rarely, if ever, applied for this purpose. Otherwise, inhaled chemicals from air fresheners, spray paint, or volatile gases create a euphoric relaxation like alcohol or sedatives.
One study involving toluene, a chemical found in some inhaled household substances, found that it acted on the brain’s dopamine system. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter involved in mood stabilization, as well as the brain’s risk and reward system. When this system is activated, dopamine is released to make the person feel happy. In the natural environment, the risk and reward system is activated through things like exercise, accomplishing tasks, and eating. However, many intoxicating substances, including toluene, activate this system without the person doing anything healthy or related to survival, and this can lead to addiction.
Types of Inhalants That Are Abused
There are four groups of inhalants that are commonly abused. These include:
- Solvents: This group includes household chemicals, such as degreasers, glue, markers, nail polish remover, gasoline, and paint thinner.
- Gas: These chemicals include lighter fluid, Freon, cleaning spray for computers, helium, and propane. Nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, is used in medical settings and sometimes, though very rarely, prescribed. A method of huffing nitrous oxide from whipped cream or other propellant containers is commonly referred to as “taking whippets.” Gases also include ether and chloroform.
- Aerosol: This group of dangerous chemicals includes spray deodorants, air fresheners, spray paint, and cooking sprays.
- Nitrites: Although these chemicals were once sold legally in the US, they are no longer legal. When acquired illegally, they have names like “leather cleaner,” “room odorizer,” or “video head cleaner.” This also includes the legal chemical amyl nitrite, which can be used for nonmedical purposes and referred to as “poppers.”
Methods of Abusing Inhalants
There are several ways that people abuse inhalants. Some of these include:
- Bagging: spraying the substance into a paper or plastic bag, then inhaling the fumes
- Ballooning: similar to bagging, but using a balloon’s pressure to force air and fumes into the body
- Dusting: spraying the substance directly into the nose or mouth
- Glading: inhaling air fresheners or other deodorizing aerosols by spraying them into the air, then inhaling the vapor
- Huffing: spraying the chemical onto a rag, then holding the rag over the nose and mouth
- Sniffing: directly inhaling the chemical through the nose
- Snorting: taking the chemical into the body directly through the mouth
Who Abuses Inhalants?
Because most of the chemicals abused as inhalants are legal chemicals used in home maintenance, cleaning, or automobile maintenance, many of the people who abuse these substances are underage. Adolescents are the most likely group to abuse inhalants at some point in their lives.
One survey from the American Association of Pediatrics (AAP) found that 20 percent of 8th grade children had tried inhalants at least once. AAP notes that peak abuse of inhalants occurs among those 14-15 years old, although children as young as 5 or 6 years old can begin a pattern of abuse of these chemicals. This could be accidental, due to peer pressure, media, or an underlying problem with addiction. The Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey from 2010 found that 15 percent of 8th graders, 12 percent of 10th graders, and 10 percent of 12th graders abused inhalants. Inhalant abuse declines around the end of high school – among those 17-19 years old – in part because of increased access to other drugs.
Per the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) in 2010, about 793,000 individuals ages 12 and older used inhalants for the first time in the previous year, and 68.4 percent of those people were under age 18. The Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey in 2008 found that 7 percent of 8th grade boys abused inhalants, while 11 percent of 8th grade girls abused these chemicals. However, 12th grade boys were more likely to abuse inhalants than girls; just over 3 percent of females in 12th grade abused inhalants, while over 4 percent of males abused these dangerous substances. White and Hispanic individuals are more likely to abuse inhalants than African American populations, although both urban and rural demographic groups abused inhalants at similar rates.
Adults sometimes struggle with inhalant abuse, particularly when they have a job that involves consistent contact with these chemicals. Manufacturing and medical professions, especially those in dentistry, are more likely to come into contact with these chemicals and begin abusing them. Additionally, abuse of inhalants like amyl nitrite has been popular among gay men.
Inhalant abuse is a problem, especially among adolescents, but statistically, this type of intoxication is declining in popularity. The peak of inhalant abuse occurred around 1990, with 18 percent of people ages 12 and older abusing inhalants at least once in their lives. Since 2002, just over 11 percent of people ages 12 and older who are surveyed abuse inhalants on average. Between 1993 and 2008, reports of inhalant abuse to poison control centers declined 33 percent.
Signs of Inhalant Abuse
Inhalants can cause many physical and mental changes, in both the short- and long-term. These are dangerous chemicals, so even one use can cause irreversible damage to the brain or other major organ systems.
- Chemical odors emanating from the person, including on the clothes or breath
- Empty containers like spray paint or aerosol cans
- Appearing drunk regularly, even though no alcohol is being consumed
- Red eyes, changes to the skin, or sores around the mouth or nose
- Runny nose or coughing
- Slurred speech and memory loss
- Irritability, anxiety, depression, and mood or personality changes
- Frequent headaches
- Nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and appetite changes
- Experiencing withdrawal and cravings if the person is unable to ingest the substance or tries to stop abusing inhalants
Effects of Inhalant Abuse
Short-term effects from inhalant abuse include:
- Brief euphoria
- Serious mood swings
- Aggression or anxiety
- Violent behavior or lashing out
- Slurred speech
- Memory problems, including amnesia
- Impaired judgment
- Visual and auditory disturbances
- Hearing loss
- Dizziness or loss of physical coordination
- Muscle weakness
- Tingling, especially in the extremities
- Spasms in the limbs
- Impaired reflexes
- Abdominal pain
- Stupor, or being conscious but unresponsive
- Falling unconscious, or being unable to wake up
Even abusing inhalants once can lead to permanent damage, including:
- Hearing loss
- Limb spasms or nerve damage
- Brain damage, especially affecting memory, personality, and emotions
- Bone marrow loss or damage, leading to changes in blood production and immune system response
- Kidney damage
- Liver damage
- Damage to the cardiovascular system
Long-term abuse can cause damage to the body and mind, such as:
- Weight loss or weight changes
- Muscle loss
- Inattentiveness or disorientation
- Depression, anxiety, or irritability
- Reduced oxygen levels in the blood
- Heart palpitations, irregular beating, or blood pressure changes
Deadly Consequences from Inhalant Abuse
There are many dangers of abusing inhalants. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), there are between 100 and 200 inhalant-caused or inhalant-related fatalities in the United States each year. Using inhalants even once can lead to death. Death from inhalant abuse can be caused by:
- Asphyxiation: Inhalants displace oxygen in the lungs, and the brain shuts down without enough oxygen.
- Suffocation: Air cannot get into the lungs due to a large concentration of chemicals. The person could also choke on vomit.
- Seizures or convulsions: Changes in brain chemistry can lead to irregular electrical activity, and that can lead to dangerous brain state changes, leading to convulsions.
- Coma: If the brain shuts down due to lack of oxygen, the person could fall into unconsciousness and never wake up.
- Fatal injury: Accidents from changes to awareness can occur, including if the person falls off a balcony or roof, causes an accident while driving, or incurs other serious injury.
Get Help Overcoming Inhalant Abuse or Addiction
Getting help to overcome inhalant abuse involves medical oversight. It is important to have a doctor monitor withdrawal, because side effects from inhalant abuse can include psychosis and seizures, both of which can be treated with medications. Once the individual has successfully detoxed, entering a rehabilitation program will help the person learn about their addiction and acquire better coping mechanisms for stress through therapy.
Rehabilitation programs most often offer individual, group, and family therapy. People who have struggled with long-term abuse of inhalants may also need long-term medical treatment, including physical and occupational therapy. The person may seek out rehabilitation programs that also offer job training and educational resources, particularly since dropping out of school is correlated with inhalant abuse among children and teenagers.
Rehabilitation programs are the best option for long-term recovery. These programs offer a great deal of social support from therapists and peers going through the same problems. Medical supervision is also available through some rehabilitation programs.