Key takeaways:

  • According to a survey performed by The National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) inhalant abuse amongst eighth-graders has risen from 3.8% to 6.1% between 2016 and 2020
  • The effects of abusing inhalants are often likened to those experienced from alcohol abuse, such as impaired judgment and motor functions. In addition, they can cause some hallucinatory effects that can’t be achieved through alcohol consumption
  • As the effects of inhalant abuse are short-lived, averaging around 2 minutes, the signs of abuse can be hard to spot. In addition, most inhalants that can be abused, such as paint thinner or hair spray, can be readily found in most homes, making it hard to spot signs of drug paraphernalia

Inhalants are toxic substances that can be found in most households and include household cleaners, solvents, aerosol sprays, and nitrites. Prolonged or excessive use can cause serious damage to the brain in a short amount of time.

Understanding inhalants

Inhalants produce short-lived, intense mind-altering effects that are likened to those produced by alcohol consumption. They are classified as a wide variety of anesthetics and chemicals that can all be ingested through oral or nasal inhalation. They are often volatile and flammable substances that evaporate at room temperature, such as solvents, anesthetics, and other gases. 

These can include household solvents like gasoline or cleaning products, anesthetics such as nitrous oxide and chloroform, and amyl nitrates which act as a muscle relaxant (amyl nitrates are usually classed as a separate inhalant as their effects differ from most regular types).

Classes of Inhalants:

Solvents

  • Paint thinners

  • Dry-cleaning fluids

  • Gasoline

  • Lighter fluid

  • Correction fluids

  • Felt-tip marker fluid

  • Electronic contact cleaners

  • Glue

  • Nail polish

  • Nail polish remover

Aerosols

  • Spray paint
  • Hair spray

  • Deodorant spray

  • Aerosol computer cleaning products

  • Vegetable oil sprays

Gases

  • Butane lighters

  • Propane tanks

  • Whipped cream dispenser (commonly referred to as whippets)

  • Ether

  • Chloroform

  • Nitrous oxide (“laughing gas”)

  • Freon

Nitrites

  • Video head cleaner
  • Room odorizer

  • Leather cleaner

  • Liquid aroma

  • Nitrous Oxide (common in dental procedures)
Get help during covid-19

Get help during Covid-19

At Recovered, we recognize the impact COVID-19 has had and the continued challenges it poses to getting advice and treatment for substance use disorders. SAMHSA has a wealth of information and resources to assist providers, individuals, communities, and states during this difficult time and is ready to help in any way possible.

Speak to SAMSHA

Effects of inhalant abuse

Most inhalants are abused by ‘huffing’ them, namely by soaking a cloth in a liquid inhalant such as gasoline, holding it over the mouth and nose, and breathing in the fumes. Some people also use plastic or paper bags to inhale solvents or balloons for gases such as nitrous oxide.  

The effects of abusing inhalants are often likened to those experienced from alcohol abuse, such as impaired judgment and motor functions. In addition, they can cause some hallucinatory effects that can’t be achieved through alcohol consumption. Also unlike alcohol, the effects of inhalants often only last a maximum of a few minutes.

Common effects of inhalant abuse

  • Excitability

  • Euphoria

  • Hallucinations

  • Loss of self-control

  • Lightheadedness

  • Dizziness

  • Limited reflexes

  • Loss of coordination

  • Blacking out

  • Slurred or distorted speech

While the immediate side effects are relatively short-lived, inhalant abuse is still considered dangerous owing to the serious negative effects it can have on the body. Inhalants are a central nervous system depressant and as such high levels of abuse can result in overdose. A fatal inhalant overdose is often caused by asphyxiation, heart failure, or the user ceasing to be able to breathe on their own.

Serious long-term physical side effects from continued inhalant abuse

  • Loss of coordination and limb spasms

  • Nerve damage

  • Delayed behavioral development

  • Brain damage

  • Liver and kidney damage

  • Hearing loss

  • Bone marrow damage

  • Damage to internal organs

  • Loss of consciousness

Signs of inhalant abuse

As the effects of inhalant abuse are short-lived, averaging around 2 minutes, the signs of abuse can be hard to spot. In addition, most inhalants that can be abused, such as paint thinner or hair spray, can be readily found in most homes, making it hard to spot signs of drug paraphernalia. The ease of acquiring and concealing inhalant abuse is a likely denominator in its popularity with teenagers. 

These are some signs of inhalant abuse to look out for:

  • chemical odors on breath or clothing

  • paint or other stains on the face, hands, or clothing

  • hidden empty spray paint or solvent containers, or rags or clothing soaked with chemicals

  • drunk or disoriented actions

  • slurred speech

  • nausea (feeling sick) or loss of appetite and weight loss

  • confusion, inattentiveness, lack of coordination, irritability, and depression

  • purchase of excessive amounts of products used as inhalants

Are inhalants addictive?

According to the 11 criteria of addiction outlined in the DSM-5, there is potential for people who abuse inhalants to become dependent. Left unchecked and with continued abuse, it is possible for someone to develop an addiction to inhalants. [3]

Like other forms of substance abuse, repeated use of inhalants can rewire the brain and affect the reward system. This causes the user to not be able to attain the same level of pleasure through traditional means and will seek to take more drugs to gain the sensation. 

While most adults don’t report using inhalants on a regular basis, there is a high proportion of teenagers who regularly abuse inhalants. According to a survey performed by The National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) inhalant abuse amongst eighth-graders has risen from 3.8% to 6.1% between 2016 and 2020. Because many legal chemicals can be inhaled, teens may be unaware of the high risks associated with the use of inhalants.

The dangers of inhalants

Most inhalants contain more than one chemical. While some chemicals leave the body shortly after use, others get absorbed by fatty tissues in the brain and central nervous system. This can cause serious problems in the long term. 

Damage to nerve fibers

Long-term inhalant use can break down the protective sheath around certain nerve fibers in the brain and elsewhere in the body. This hurts the ability of nerve cells to send messages, which can cause muscle spasms and tremors or even permanent trouble with basic actions like walking, bending, and talking.

Damage to brain cells

Inhalants can also damage brain cells by preventing them from getting enough oxygen. Also known as brain hypoxia, the effects depend on the area of the brain that gets damaged. The hippocampus, for example, is responsible for memory, so someone who repeatedly uses inhalants may be unable to learn new things or may have a hard time carrying on simple conversations.

Effects of inhalants on the body

  • confusion

  • upset stomach

  • slurred speech

  • lack of coordination

  • dizziness

  • lightheadedness

  • hallucinations/delusions

  • headache

  • intense feelings of joy

  • sudden sniffing death due to the heart stopping

  • death from suffocation, seizures, coma, or choking

Long-term effects of specific chemicals

Depending on the type of inhalant used, the harmful health effects will differ. Different types of inhalants and their possible effects are described below:

Amyl nitrite, butyl nitrite (poppers, video head cleaner)

sudden sniffing death

weakened immune system

damage to red blood cells (interfering with oxygen supply to vital tissues)

Benzene (gasoline)

bone marrow damage

weakened immune system

increased risk of leukemia (a form of cancer)

reproductive system complications

Butane, propane (lighter fluid, hair and paint sprays)

sudden sniffing death from heart effects

serious burn injuries

Freon - difluoroethane substitutes (refrigerant and aerosol propellant)

sudden sniffing death

breathing problems and death (from sudden cooling of airways)

liver damage

Methylenelchloride (paint thinners and removers, degreasers)

reduced ability of blood to carry oxygen to the brain and body

changes to heart muscle and heartbeat

Nitrous oxide, hexane (“laughing gas”)

death from lack of oxygen to the brain

altered perception and motor coordination

loss of sensation

spasms

blackouts caused by blood pressure changes

depression of heart muscle functioning

Toluene (gasoline, paint thinners and removers, correction fluid)

brain damage (loss of brain tissue, impaired thinking, loss of coordination, limb spasms, hearing and vision loss)

liver and kidney damage

Tricholoroethylene (spot removers, degreasers)

sudden sniffing death

liver disease

reproductive problems

hearing and vision loss

Inhalant withdrawal

Though relatively uncommon, those who are coming off of inhalants after prolonged periods of abuse may experience withdrawal symptoms. If they do occur, the physical withdrawal symptoms usually last no more than a week and include:

  • upset stomach

  • loss of appetite

  • sweating

  • problems sleeping

  • mood changes

The psychological withdrawal symptoms from inhalant abuse can include anxiety and irritability, as well as cravings in extreme cases. Treatment for inhalant addiction usually involves some form of behavioral therapy such as CBT, as well as support groups and 12-step programs. For those suffering from intense addiction, there are rehab and treatment centers that can help manage withdrawal symptoms and identify any underlying mental or co-occurring conditions that may tie into the addiction. Contact a treatment center today to get help with inhalant addiction. 

Treating an inhalant addiction

While addiction to inhalants may be uncommon, the devastating effect they can have on the brain in a short space of time means that any inhalant addiction or dependence should be treated urgently. Parents need to be especially vigilant for signs that their child or teen is abusing inhalants, and should educate their child about the risks associated with these chemicals.

Anyone who needs help overcoming a substance use problem or addiction can find help by scheduling an appointment with a licensed health, mental health, or addiction treatment specialist.