Many illicit drugs can be inhaled, from marijuana to methamphetamine to cocaine. While these drugs are dangerous, they are also largely illegal, expensive, and sometimes hard to obtain.
Table of Contents
What Are Inhalants?
Inhalants are substances and medications which have to be inhaled for the recipient to feel its effects. An example of a medication that is an inhalant would be nitrates, which help patients with chest pain. Other substances such as aerosol sprays, gases, spray paints, markers, glues and cleaning fluids can also be misused as inhalants even though they are not medications.
Inhalants can be especially dangerous if misused due to their psychoactive, or mind-altering, properties. These properties are the reason people use random household products to achieve a “high”. Younger children and teens are more likely to misuse inhalants at higher rates than their older peers.
Easier to find and buy – often simply found around the average house – many common products can produce vapors that when inhaled have mind-altering, or psychoactive, effects. These products and their chemical vapors are called inhalants. They make up a dangerous drug class that can be unpredictable with potentially hazardous consequences, sometimes from even a single use.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that 21.7 million Americans over the age of 12 have tried an inhalant at least once. These drugs may be particularly appealing to the younger generation. The Monitoring the Future (MTF) study of 2014 found that approximately 5.3 percent of 8th graders had abused inhalants in the year before the survey. These numbers seem to drop off as adolescents “age out” of inhalant abuse, as only around 1.9 percent of 12th graders abused them in the same year, as they perhaps moved on to other illicit substances. Inhalants are often considered “gateway” drugs, although this is hard to quantify with certainty. Abusers of inhalants often begin at a young age, as 58 percent of users start before the end of 9th grade, as published in Addiction Science and Clinical Practice.
How Are Inhalants Used?
People must breathe in inhalants for them to experience the desired effects of either the prescription medication or substance. People taking inhalants breathe in the fumes through their nose or mouth, usually by the action of snorting, huffing, or bagging, depending on the kind of equipment they have for this purpose. The immediate effects produced by inhalants usually only last a few short minutes, which is why people try to prolong their experience by inhaling the substance repeatedly over the course of several hours.
Inhalants should never be used with alcohol or tranquilizers. These drugs are depressants and slow down the body’s function. When combining these with inhalants, bodily functions can become so slow that an overdose is possible. Inhalants can also impair a person’s decision-making skills, putting them at risk for making dangerous or life-threatening choices.
Types of Inhalants
Inhalants usually lie in four main categories that include a variety of household products. These categories and products include:
- Aerosols: spray paint, spray vegetable oil, hair and deodorant sprays, computer cleaner, and fabric protector sprays
- Solvents: lighter fluid, gasoline, paint thinner, nail polish, nail polish remover, glue, felt-tip marker fluid, correction fluid, rubber cement, and dry cleaning fluids
- Nitrates: amyl nitrate “poppers” marketed as video head cleaner, room deodorizer, leather cleaner, or liquid aroma
- Gases: found in butane lighters, refrigerators, propane tanks, aerosol whip cream cans called “whippets,” and medical anesthetics such as “laughing gas”
These substances are abused in several different ways, including by sniffing or snorting the fumes directly, pouring or spraying the fumes into a bag and then inhaling them (called “bagging”), spraying the aerosol fumes directly into the nose or mouth, soaking a rag in the substance and then “huffing” it, or inhaling nitrous oxide from a balloon. The “high” comes on rather quickly, and it is generally relatively short-lived.
How to Stop Inhalant Abuse
Many inhalants dampen the central nervous system, comparable to how alcohol does, and the intoxication may mimic that of drunkenness, including symptoms like slurred speech, loss of coordination, slowed reflexes, dizziness, and feeling “high” or euphoric. Inhalants may also cause hallucinations and delusions as well as lightheaded feelings. Repetitive use can lead to poor impulse control and lowered inhibitions, which may incur potentially risky behaviors.
Nitrates are different in that they dilate and relax blood vessels. They are primarily used as sexual enhancers and may be indicated by increased sexual desire and unsafe sexual practices.
Some of the additional signs to watch for if you suspect inhalant abuse include:
- Chemical smell on breath or clothing
- Paint or other stains on fingers, clothing, or face
- Painting fingernails with markers or correctional fluid
- Hiding rags in the laundry or around a room
- Possessing multiple butane lighters even if the person doesn’t smoke
- Red or runny nose
- Loss of appetite
- Dazed appearance
- Sores around the mouth
- Multiple empty aerosol cans
- Dilated pupils
- Inability to focus
- Fatigue or changes in sleep patterns
You may notice changes in personality or mood swings related to inhalant abuse that is out of character. Substance abuse may also lead to withdrawal from social situations, troubles with interpersonal relationships, and a lack of enjoyment or interest in activities that may have been previously enjoyed. Be aware that a drop in school or work performance may also be an indicator of substance abuse or dependence.
Dangers of Repetitive Use
Repetitive abuse of inhalants may lead to physical and psychological dependence or addiction. Many substances make chemical changes in the reward and motivation pathways in the brain, causing compulsive drug-seeking behavior, cravings, and withdrawal symptoms, such as headaches, nausea, anxiety, irritability, and depression when inhalants are not present. Addicts will spend most of their time thinking about how to obtain inhalants, using them, and then recovering from their effects. Inhalant abuse may start out as an experiment, due to peer pressure, or as an attempt to deal with another issue in one’s life. Abusing substances can provide a short-term escape from reality that may be craved. Inhalant abuse is often a precursor to abusing other harmful and illicit substances, starting young people down the path to a potential substance abuse disorder or addiction at a very young age.
Per NIDA, abusing an inhalant even one time can be potentially life-threatening, causing heart failure via a syndrome called “sudden sniffing death.” Suffocation can also occur, especially if using a bag to inhale chemicals or abusing volatile inhalants in a poorly ventilated environment. When too many toxins are present in the bloodstream at once, an overdose can occur; this may be indicated by excessive sweating, rapid heart rate, nausea, physical tics and seizures, or a loss of consciousness, which can also be potentially fatal. A lack of oxygen to the brain may lead to permanent brain damage, hearing and vision loss, and troubles with coordination and long-term memory issues. Other side effects of chronic inhalant abuse may include damage to the liver and kidneys.
Signs of Inhalant Abuse
If you or someone you love begins to develop a psychological addiction to inhalants, it is important to get help as soon as possible. Signs of inhalant addiction include becoming obsessed with finding and using inhalants, as well as losing interest in the hobbies and activities that were once enjoyed. Finding medically trained help to overcome inhalant addiction is important because those who become reliant upon inhalants typically experience uncomfortable symptoms when the practice is discontinued. Withdrawal symptoms experienced after prolonged inhalant use may include nausea, loss of appetite, sweating, insomnia and mood changes.
Treatment Options for Inhalant Abuse
The mean age of first-time abuse of inhalants for Americans is 13, as published by American Family Physician. As a result, education about the dangers of inhalant abuse should be the first recourse for prevention. Inhalant abuse should not be ignored, and if you do suspect abuse or addiction, you should seek professional help.
The effects of inhalant abuse can usually be reversed with abstinence and healthier lifestyle choices. Psychotherapy and supportive treatment methods currently offer the best success rates for a full recovery. Behavioral therapies can help to determine the root cause of the substance abuse and what environmental, emotional, or social stressors may exist within everyday life that act as triggers for self-destructive behaviors, like inhaling volatile substances. After discovering the triggers, new life skills and coping mechanisms are taught, which give the individual new strategies on how to manage stress as it applies in daily life. Self-destructive thought patterns and behaviors are identified and modified, and self-esteem and self-confidence are bolstered. Peer groups, and 12-step support groups, offer a safe haven where difficult emotions and similar circumstances are shared and understood.
The Importance of Aftercare
There is always a risk for recurrence of use after recovering from inhalant addiction or another substance use disorder. While recurrence is common, it is not inevitable. At times, returning to inhalants can be a sign that your addiction treatment plan needs to be changed to better fit your needs. Participating in an effective aftercare program is integral to resisting inhalants and achieving long-term recovery. In this type of program, patients can receive support and ongoing therapy options that will help them to avoid the desire to return to inhalants.
Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or another qualified healthcare provider.