Key takeaways:

  • Short-term inhalant effects can be immediate stimulation, disinhibition, and euphoria that is sometimes later followed by hallucinations, general depression, slurred speech, dizziness, drowsiness, and disorientation
  • Sudden sniffing death is a fatal condition that occurs when the concentrated chemicals in solvents (notably butane, propane, and aerosols) cause irregular heart rhythms
  • Certain solvents (toluene and naphthalene for example) can damage the protective membrane around certain nerve fibers in the brain and central nervous system. This causes severe damage to nerve fibers similar to that found in multiple sclerosis

Inhalants are uncommonly abused but can have devastating and lasting harmful effects on a person’s body and brain. Inhalants include common household cleaners, paint thinners, solvents such as lighter fluid, aerosols like hair spray or spray paint, and other chemicals that can produce a short, intense high when inhaled or ‘huffed’ into the lungs. The warning signs of inhalant abuse are hard to detect as the effects of the substances used are often short-lived.

Effects of inhalant abuse

There are substances in all our homes, workplaces, and educational institutes that can be used as inhalants, including common household chemicals and cleaners. When a person inhales the fumes from these chemicals, it can produce a short but intense high. This makes inhalants a popular choice of substance abuse amongst teens and young adolescents

Short-term inhalant effects can be immediate stimulation, disinhibition, and euphoria that is sometimes later followed by hallucinations, general depression, slurred speech, dizziness, drowsiness, and disorientation. Long-term effects can include permanent damage to the brain, increased risk for illnesses and cancers, and even sudden death.[1, 2]

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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.

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Signs of Inhalant Abuse

Teens and children are more likely to experiment with inhalants, often without knowing how dangerous these chemicals are. It’s important for parents, educators, and other caregivers to recognize the signs of inhalant abuse and take action to prevent easy access to these chemicals.[4, 5]

Some of the common signs of inhalant abuse include [1, 3, 4, 5]:

  • Chemical odors on breath or clothing
  • Paint or chemical stains on clothes, face, or hands
  • Sores around nose and mouth
  • Heightened anxiety/irritability
  • Hidden solvent containers such as spray or gas cans
  • Slurred speech
  • Appearing drunk or disoriented
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Impaired judgment
  • lack of coordination
  • Inattentiveness
  • Changes in mood or behavior 

The risks of inhalant abuse

Most forms of solvent and aerosol abuse produce an immediate high similar to that felt when abusing alcohol. The high is short-lived and residual effects include drowsiness, dizziness, and agitation. If volatile solvents are abused in high doses they can act as anesthesia and result in unconsciousness. [1, 2] For example, abusing inhalants such as nitrous oxide can prevent oxygen from effectively getting to the brain which can lead to death. 

Other short term dangers of inhalant abuse include:

  • Vomiting
  • Limb spasms
  • Hallucinations/delusions
  • Intense headache
  • Sudden sniffing death due to cardiac arrest
  • Death from suffocation, seizures, coma, or choking

Sudden sniffing death is a fatal condition that occurs when the concentrated chemicals in solvents (notably butane, propane, and aerosols) cause irregular heart rhythms. This can lead to heart failure and death within minutes and can happen to anyone, even on their first time abusing solvents. [2]

Abusing solvents and other inhalants can also lead to death in other ways such as:[2]

  • asphyxiation
  • convulsions or seizures
  • coma
  • choking
  • fatal injury
  • permanent damage to the brain

Inhalant abuse and permanent brain damage

Studies into the effects of inhalants have proven that they have highly neurotoxic properties, and prolonged exposure and abuse, and cause long-lasting damage to the nervous system and brain. [2] Certain solvents (toluene and naphthalene for example) can damage the protective membrane around certain nerve fibers in the brain and central nervous system.  

This causes severe damage to nerve fibers similar to that found in multiple sclerosis. [2] Prolonged inhalant abuse also causes neurological syndromes in the areas of the brain that control vision, hearing, movement, and cognition. This can lead to severe cognitive neurological conditions similar to dementia or Parkinsons'. [2] Inhalant abuse long-term can also lead to serious heart conditions and other pulmonary diseases, as well as increasing the risk for certain cancers. [2, 5] 

Find out more about dangerous drugs here.

Inhalant abuse and other health risks

Aside from the immediate health risks and potential for long-term brain damage, inhalants can also cause a  variety of other health risks including damage to vital organs that can lead to life-threatening conditions, including:[2, 4, 5]

  • Liver damage
  • Kidney damage
  • Loss of vision
  • Permanent hearing loss
  • Muscle deterioration
  • Heart failure
  • Respiratory damage
  • Bone marrow damage

Can you be addicted to inhalants?

While inhalants are not as widely used and abused as other drugs, it is still possible to become addicted to them. Addiction is a psychological and/or physical dependence on a substance that forms when it is abused repeatedly. People who develop addictions often continue using a drug, despite the fact it is causing significant harm, impairment, or consequences for them in one or more areas of life.[3]

Inhalant treatment and next steps

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.[2, 4]

Psychosocial interventions have been tested in the US and include community-based approaches, education, youth and recreation, clinical management, and counseling as well as residential programs. Pharmacological studies have indicated that risperidone at 1mg has shown to have a significant reduction in cravings. Similar studies with haloperidol in small dosages have shown reductions in severity specifically with those individuals that were exhibiting signs of psychosis or hallucinations. [5] 

Anyone who needs help overcoming a substance use problem or addiction can find help by scheduling an appointment with licensed health, mental health, or addiction treatment specialists. During a formal assessment, a clinician can assess whether or not the person has a substance use disorder and make individualized recommendations for treatment.