Overview of Inhalants
Inhalants are a substance that is created from a chemical vapor that can be inhaled, resulting in a psychoactive effect that creates alterations in the mind. It is intended to be used for medical purposes to be used as an anesthesia. Some street names for inhalants around the world include huff, balloons, dusters, laughing gas, snappers, whippets, glue sniffing, and poppers.
“Although other abused substances can be inhaled, the term “inhalants” is used to describe a variety of substances whose main common characteristic is that they are rarely, if ever, taken by any route other than inhalation.” (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2011).
The exact definition of inhalants is hard to describe, but there is broad list of categories that they are listed under including aerosols, volatile solvents, nitrites, and gases. These categories are based on where the inhalants are typically found in the household such as medical products, or industrial items.
Sprays that contain solvents and propellants including hairspray, spray paint, deodorant, cooking sprays, or fabric protectant sprays.
Liquids that become a vapor once they are at room temperature that can be easily found in household items including dry cleaning products, paint thinners, gasoline, degreasers, glues, felt-tip markers and correction fluids.
A special class of inhalants that are used to dilate your blood vessels, causing you to have relaxed muscles. Unlike other inhalants that are used to that are taken to alter our mood, nitrites are typically used as sexual enhancers. They are referred to as “snappers” or “poppers” and include isobutyl (butyl) nitrite cyclohexyl nitrite and isoamyl (amyl) nitrite.
Medical anesthetics and gases that can be found in household or commercial products. These include halothane, nitrous oxide, and chloroform. The most common of these is nitrous oxide and the most abused, usually found in whipped cream containers and automotive cans that are used to enhance octane levels in racing cars.
How are Inhalants Used?
Inhalants can be breathed in through the mouth or nose in multiple ways including:
- Inhaling from balloons filled with nitrous oxide
- “Huffing” from an inhalant-soaked rag stuffed in the mouth
- “Sniffing” or “snorting” fumes from containers
- “Bagging” — sniffing or inhaling fumes from substances sprayed or deposited inside a plastic or paper bag
- Spraying aerosols directly into the nose or mouth
When chemicals are inhaled, they quickly enter the bloodstream through our lungs and get distributed into the brain and other organs. When you use inhalants, the effects come on quickly, within seconds of inhaling, and you experience intoxication and other effects that are described similarly to drinking alcohol.
How do Inhalants Make a Person Feel?
Inhalants work by slowing down the brain activity because they affect the central nervous system. The immediate, short-term affects of using inhalants include:
- Euphoria (feeling high)
- Slurred or distorted speech
- Lack of coordination (control of body movement)
Other common side effects that you may experience include feeling light-headed or having illusions called delusions, or hallucinations. These images or sensations may feel real, but they aren’t. When you use inhalants, it can make you feel out of control, and less self-conscious. Other people have reported feeling drowsy, having headaches or vomiting while using.
Health Effects of Inhalants
There can be both short-term and long-term health effects of inhalants. Inhaling fumes replaces most oxygen intake into the lungs, depriving the brain of essential oxygen levels. This can cause a lack of oxygen, pneumonia, cardiac arrest, or death by hypoxia.
Short-Term Health Effects
Most inhalants will produce a feeling that is like alcohol intoxication. There is an initial euphoric feeling, followed by disinhibition, drowsiness, lightheadedness, and irritation. If you inhale enough of the gases, it produces anesthesia, which is a loss of sensation, and can lead to total unconsciousness.
Chemicals that can be found in aerosol sprays, solvents and gases can cause an array of side effects to occur while using or shortly after you use. They are considered an inhalant intoxication and produce effects such as apathy, belligerence, impaired functioning, and impaired judgement. Other people have experienced nausea and vomiting while using inhalants.
If you are exposed to large amounts of inhalants more severe effects can happen such as delirium or confusion.
Long-Term Health Effects
If you abuse inhalants it can cause some long-term negative effects to your health. These effects can include slurred speech, dizziness, lethargy, drowsiness, general muscle weakness, stupor, and depressed reflexes. Studies show that the inhalant toluene can cause euphoria, headaches, the inability to coordinate movements and giddy feelings.
Abusing Inhalants and Addiction
There are risks involved if you abuse inhalants and health consequences that can potentially be severe and life-threatening. The chemicals that are produced in sprays and solvents can cause rapid or irregular heart rhythms, ultimately leading to heart failure within minutes of using this drug. Because of the euphoric feelings in your body that it causes, it can be highly addictive.
“This syndrome, known as “sudden sniffing death,” can result from a single session of inhalant use by an otherwise healthy young person. Sudden sniffing death is associated particularly with the abuse of butane, propane, and chemicals in aerosols.” (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2011)
Although a small number of recorded deaths of 100-200 per year due to inhalant use, it is still a growing problem that needs to be addressed. If you find yourself constantly wanting to use inhalants to the point that it is affecting your life, it could be a sign that you are addicted.
- Fatal injury – from accidents, including motor vehicle fatalities, suffered while intoxicated.
- Asphyxiation – inhaling large amounts can cause high concentrations of inhaled fumes which will replace valuable oxygen from the lungs
- Choking – from inhalation of vomit after inhalant use
- Coma – from the brain shutting down all but the most vital functions
- Suffocation – from blocking air from entering the lungs when inhaling fumes from a plastic bag placed over the head
- Convulsions or seizures – from abnormal electrical discharges in the brain
Withdrawal or symptoms that can occur if you stop using include weight loss, muscle weakness, irritability, depression, drowsiness, headache, and loss of consciousness.
Are Inhalants Toxic?
Studies on both animals and humans have shown that inhalants are extremely toxic, with one of the most chronic toxic exposures to the body that can cause life-long effects to the brain and body. Neurological damage to the brain that involves movement, hearing, vision and controlling cognition can be severely impaired from inhalant use. Some cases can be described as mild impairment but also be as severe as dementia.
Other organs are affected by the toxic components of inhalants. Chronic exposure can cause catastrophic damage to the lungs, heart, kidneys, and liver. Although there are some conditions where damage to organs can be irreversible after discontinued use, the truth is, many are not and will affect you for the rest of your life.
Getting Treatment for your Inhalant Abuse
The first step in getting help for your inhalant use disorder is to call or reach out to an addiction treatment center near you; there you will be medically reviewed to determine the extent of your abuse. The treatment for this typically involves an inpatient rehab center, outpatient rehab center, therapy, 12-step programs, and support groups. With the care of a treatment and recovery center, you can have a full recovery from inhalants, free from drugs and live a happier, healthier life.
Sometimes a medical detox is necessary when you stop using inhalants, due to the withdrawals that occur when you quit. For these circumstances, it is best to get help from a team of medical professionals to support you through your detox and withdrawal. From there, you can move on to a residential treatment program.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2011, February) What are the Medical Consequences of Inhalant Abuse? https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/inhalants/what-are-other-medical-consequences-inhalant-abuse
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2011, February) What are Inhalants https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/inhalants/what-are-inhalants
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2011, February) What are the short-and long-term effects of inhalant use? https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/inhalants/what-are-short-long-term-effects-inhalant-use