What are inhalants?
Although other substances that are misused can be inhaled, the term inhalants refers to the various substances that people typically take only by inhaling. These substances include:
- solvents (liquids that become gas at room temperature)
- aerosol sprays
- nitrites (prescription medicines for chest pain)
Inhalants are various products easily bought and found in the home or workplace—such as spray paints, markers, glues, and cleaning fluids. They contain dangerous substances that have psychoactive (mind-altering) properties when inhaled. People don’t typically think of these products as drugs because they’re not intended for getting “high,” but some people use them for that purpose. When these substances are used for getting high, they are called inhalants. Inhalants are mostly used by young kids and teens and are the only class of substance used more by younger than by older teens.
How do people use inhalants?
People who use inhalants breathe in the fumes through their nose or mouth, usually by “sniffing,” “snorting,” “bagging,” or “huffing.” It’s called different names depending on the substance and equipment they use. For more information, read NIDA’s Research Report on Inhalants.
Although the high that inhalants produce usually lasts just a few minutes, people often try to make it last by continuing to inhale again and again over several hours.
Products Used as Inhalants
- industrial or household products, including:
- paint thinners or removers
- dry-cleaning fluids
- lighter fluid
- art or office supply solvents, including:
- correction fluids
- felt-tip marker fluid
- electronic contact cleaners
- household aerosol items, including:
- spray paints
- hair or deodorant sprays
- aerosol computer cleaning products
- vegetable oil sprays
- found in household or commercial products, including:
- butane lighters
- propane tanks
- whipped cream aerosols or dispensers (whippets)
- used as anesthesia (to make patients lose sensation during surgery/procedures), including:
- nitrous oxide
- often sold in small brown bottles labeled as:
- video head cleaner
- room odorizer
- leather cleaner
- liquid aroma
How do inhalants affect the brain?
Most inhalants affect the central nervous system and slow down brain activity. Short-term effects are similar to alcohol and include:
- slurred or distorted speech
- lack of coordination (control of body movement)
- euphoria (feeling “high”)
People may also feel light-headed or have hallucinations (images/sensations that seem real but aren’t) or delusions (false beliefs). With repeated inhalations, many people feel less self-conscious and less in control. Some may start vomiting, feel drowsy for several hours, or have a headache that lasts a while.
Unlike other types of inhalants, nitrites, which are often prescribed to treat chest pain, are misused in order to improve sexual pleasure by expanding and relaxing blood vessels.
What are the other health effects of inhalants?
Long-term effects of inhalant use may include:
- liver and kidney damage
- hearing loss
- bone marrow damage
- loss of coordination and limb spasms (from nerve damage)
- delayed behavioral development (from brain problems)
- brain damage (from cut-off oxygen flow to the brain)
In addition, because nitrites are misused for sexual pleasure and performance, they can lead to unsafe sexual practices or other risky behavior. This increases the chance of getting or spreading infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS or hepatitis.
Read more about drug use and HIV/AIDS in HIV/AIDS and Drug Abuse: Intertwined Epidemics DrugFacts. Read more about drug use and hepatitis at our webpage about viral hepatitis.
Can a person overdose on inhalants?
Yes, a person can overdose on inhalants. An overdose occurs when a person uses too much of a drug and has a toxic reaction that results in serious, harmful symptoms or death.
These symptoms can cause seizures and coma. They can even be deadly. Many solvents and aerosol sprays are highly concentrated, meaning they contain a large amount of chemicals with a lot of active ingredients. Sniffing these products can cause the heart to stop within minutes. This condition, known as sudden sniffing death, can happen to an otherwise healthy young person the first time he or she uses an inhalant. Using inhalants with a paper or plastic bag or in a closed area may cause death from suffocation (being unable to breathe).
How can an inhalant overdose be treated?
Because inhalant overdose can lead to seizures or cause the heart to stop, first responders and emergency room doctors try to treat the overdose by treating these conditions. They will try to stop the seizure or restart the heart.
Can inhalants cause addiction, a form of substance use disorder?
Although it’s not very common, repeated use of inhalants can lead to addiction, a form of substance use disorder (SUD). An SUD develops when continued use of the drug causes issues, such as health problems and failure to meet responsibilities at work, school, or home. An SUD can range from mild to severe, the most severe form being addiction.
Those who try to quit inhalants may have withdrawal symptoms that include:
- loss of appetite
- problems sleeping
- mood changes
How can people get treatment for addiction to inhalants?
Some people seeking treatment for use of inhalants have found behavioral therapy to be helpful:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy helps patients recognize, avoid, and cope with the situations in which they are most likely to use drugs.
- Motivational incentives uses vouchers or small cash rewards for positive behaviors such as staying drug-free.
More research is needed to identify the most effective treatment options for addiction to inhalants.
Points to Remember
- Although other substances that are misused can be inhaled, the term inhalants refers to the various substances that people typically take only by inhaling.
- Inhalants are various products easily bought and found in the home or workplace—such as spray paints, markers, glues, and cleaning fluids. They contain dangerous substances that have psychoactive (mind-altering) properties when inhaled.
- People who use inhalants breathe them in through the mouth (huffing) or nose.
- Most inhalants affect the central nervous system and slow down brain activity.
- Short-term health effects include slurred or distorted speech, lack of coordination, euphoria (feeling “high”), dizziness, and hallucinations.
- Long-term health effects may include liver and kidney damage, loss of coordination and limb spasms, delayed behavioral development, and brain damage.
- A person can overdose on inhalants. Because inhalant overdose can lead to seizures or cause the heart to stop, first responders and emergency room doctors try to stop the seizure or restart the heart.
- Although it’s not very common, repeated use of inhalants can lead to addiction, a form of substance use disorder. Withdrawal symptoms include nausea, sweating, problems sleeping, and mood changes.
- Some people seeking treatment for use of inhalants have found behavioral therapy to be helpful.
For more information about inhalants, visit our:
ARE INHALANTS ADDICTIVE?
Inhalants can be physically and psychologically addictive. Users report a strong urge to continue using inhalants, especially after continued usage over many days.
Habitual users coming off inhalants suffer withdrawal symptoms which can include nausea, excessive sweating, muscle cramps, headaches, chills, agitation, with shaking and hallucinations. In severe cases, withdrawal can cause convulsions.
“Tomorrow is the sixth anniversary of our son Justin’s death. He was 16. He died from inhaling air freshener, an act of inhalant abuse. His senseless death rocked the worlds of all who knew him. Justin was an honors student who loved life and embraced it with enthusiasm. . . . He was a source of inspiration for many. . . . I will always be haunted by the question of whether Justin would be with us today had he known about the risks he was taking.” —Jackie
Addiction to Inhalants
Even though national surveys indicate that 21.7 million Americans have used inhalants at least once in their lives, inhalant abuse is less common than other drugs, and most cases occur in more isolated regions. However, inhalants do have addictive qualities. The danger of an inhalant addiction shouldn’t be overlooked just because it is less common than others.
People who use inhalants on a regular basis over a long period of time can develop a physical and psychological dependence on the substance.
Inhalant use is most prevalent among teenagers. Studies suggest that between 13.1% and 16.1% of 8 graders use inhalants, which is approximately the same percentage that use marijuana. People who are unable to control their inhalant use despite knowing the negative consequences and health effects are generally considered to have an addiction. Even those with an overwhelming desire to stop abusing inhalants may be unable to do so. The ready availability of inhalants at home and in stores may make it difficult for someone with a severe addiction to quit on their own.
Inhalants are volatile, often flammable substances that vaporize at room temperature. Inhalants produce short-lived, mind-altering effects that can be similar to alcohol’s effects. Inhalants encompass a wide variety of chemicals and anesthetics categorized together based on their method of administration: inhalation. These substances are often referred to as whippets, laughing gas, huff or hippie crack.
Substances Considered Inhalants
Inhalant abuse includes the misuse of household solvents, gases and anesthetics. Household inhalants can be anything from cleaning products to gasoline.
Anesthetics are gases used to medically reduce sensitivity to pain. Nitrous oxide and chloroform are some well-known anesthetics. Nitrous oxide is best known as “laughing gas” and is commonly used by dentists. This gas is also used in cans of whipped cream, which is where most abusers get it.
Amyl nitrite is also a popular inhalant that has been used to increase blood flow in people with heart disease. Nitrites are oftentimes subjugated to their own class of inhalants because they act primarily as a muscle relaxant, different from the effects of other inhalants.
Classes of Inhalants
- Paint thinners
- Dry-cleaning fluids
- Lighter fluid
- Correction fluids
- Felt-tip marker fluid
- Electronic contact cleaners
- Nail polish
- Nail polish remover
- Spray paint
- Hair spray
- Deodorant spray
- Aerosol computer cleaning products
- Vegetable oil sprays
- Butane lighters
- Propane tanks
- Whipped cream dispenses (commonly referred to as whippets)
- Nitrous oxide (“laughing gas”)
- Video head cleaner
- Room odorizer
- Leather cleaner
- Liquid aroma
Inhalant Abuse What It Is And Treatment
The term “inhalants” applies to a range of products (most of which are common in households across the United States) that can be abused in order to achieve a state of disorientation or euphoria.
The following are among the more commonly abused inhalants:
- Model glue
- Nail polish remover
- Spray paint
- Cooking spray
- Correction fluid (such as Liquid Paper and Wite-Out)
- Cleaning fluids
Chemicals in commonly abused inhalants include butane, propane, fluorocarbons, ethyl chloride, acetone, and nitrous oxide.
Inhalant abuse usually occurs via “huffing” — that is, inhaling the fumes from the substances. For the inhalant abuser to get maximum effect from the substance being abused, the substances may be poured into a plastic bag or soaked into a rag, which is then placed very near the nose and mouth.
Inhalant abuse leads to intense short-term effects, including the following:
- Slurred speech
- Coordination problems
- Cognitive distortion
- Disorientation and confusion
The effects of inhalant abuse are usually felt within seconds of the huffing, and generally dissipate within a matter of minutes. Of course, extended or chronic huffing or inhalant abuse can result in long-term damage such as:
- Brain damage
- Liver and kidney damage
- Memory loss
- Seizures and spasms
- Vision and hearing damage
Treatment for Inhalant Abuse
Animal and human research show that most inhalants are extremely toxic:
- Chronic exposure can lead to widespread and long-lasting damage to the brain and other parts of the nervous system. Nerve damage can be similar to that seen in individuals with neurological diseases such as multiple sclerosis.
- Chronic exposure can produce significant damage to the heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys.
- Prolonged abuse can negatively affect a person’s cognition, movement, vision, and hearing.
- Highly concentrated amounts of certain inhalants can lead to sudden sniffing death – heart failure and death can occur within minutes of repeated inhalations.
Sudden sniffing death is particularly associated with the abuse of butane, propane, and chemicals in aerosols, and can result from a single session of inhalant abuse by an otherwise healthy person.
Treatment for inhalant abuse depends upon several factors, including the age and gender of the patient, the length and severity of the patient’s drug problems, the type(s) of inhalants being abused, the abuse of or addition to any other substances, and the presence of any co-occurring disorders.
Treatment for young people who have been involved in inhalant abuse may be done on an outpatient, residential, or partial hospitalization basis. Therapeutic boarding schools, therapeutic wilderness programs, and residential drug addiction recovery programs all offer effective treatment options for young people who have been abusing inhalants.
Treatment for inhalant abuse or addiction may include the following therapies and techniques:
- Individual therapy
- Group therapy
- Family therapy
- 12-Step education
- Relapse-prevention instruction
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
- Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)
- Biofeedback & Neurofeedback
- Recreation therapy
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