The term inhalant refers to any volatile substance that can be inhaled to produce a psychoactive effect. In most cases, inhalants are legal, household products that can be bought at any warehouse store. Despite their seemingly innocuous nature, these chemical vapors can be extremely dangerous, some even causing death or permanent brain damage the first time they are abused.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that 9.3% of Americans 12 years old and older have tried an inhalant at least once in their life.
Typical inhalants may include the following:
- Volatile solvents (cleaning fluids, chloroform)
- Aerosol sprays (hair sprays, spray paints)
- Gases (nitrous oxide found in whipped cream cannisters)
Street names for inhalants include “air blast,” “bang,” “huff,” “dust,” and “whiteout.”
Who Is Using Inhalants?
Inhalants are unique in that they are more popular among younger teens compared to older teens and adults. In fact, the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s annual Monitoring The Future survey of 8th, 10th and 12th graders found inhalant abuse more popular among 8th graders than any other group.
Several factors may contribute to inhalants’ popularity among young teenagers:
- Inhalants are legal and can be bought at any department store; most are already available in the household
- Inhalants are relatively inexpensive compared to other drugs
- Younger teenagers may lack connections to buy drugs, but can easily purchase inhalants
How Inhalants Are Used
Since inhalants are in a gaseous or aerosol form, they are breathed in through the mouth or nose into the lungs. When the inhalant reaches the lungs, it crosses into the bloodstream and exerts its effects almost instantly.
The high associated with inhalants usually only lasts minutes. Many people continue to inhale the drug in an effort to continue the high.
Inhalants can be taken in a variety of ways including:
- Sniffing the fumes from a container
- Spraying it directly into the nose or mouth, or into a bag and inhaling from the bag
- Soaking a rag or towel with solvent, then inhaling the fumes
- Filling a balloon with the inhalant, then inhaling the vapor as the balloon is decompressed
How Do Inhalants Work in the Brain?
Inhalants are a broad category of drugs with varying mechanisms of action, however most inhalants are central nervous system depressants similar to alcohol and benzodiazepines. One particularly inhalant, toluene (an ingredient in paint thinner), has been shown to increase dopamine in the brain. This mechanism is similar to how cocaine works. Nitrites, also known as “poppers” or “snappers,” work by dilating blood vessels to produce a lightheaded effect.
Because all inhalants are gaseous, they displace oxygen in the lungs, leading to deadly oxygen deprivation.
Poppers are a particularly popular class of inhalants called nitrites – drugs that dilate blood vessels to produce a fast-acting sensation of relaxation accompanied by dizziness and lightheadedness. They can be bought online, at bars, or gas stations. Some common nitrites contained in poppers include:3
- Amyl nitrite (most popular)
- Isobutyl nitrite
- Isopropyl nitrite
Supplied as a small vial containing the nitrite in gaseous form, when the cap is removed the drug is quickly inhaled through the mouth or nose.
Poppers are associated with a significant amount of side effects including eye damage, increased heart rate, migraines and fainting.
Poppers are currently illegal in the United States.
Short Term Effects of Inhalants
Depending on which type of inhalant has been used, it may produce any number of the following effects:
- Drowsiness – CNS depressant inhalants will often make the user feel tired after inhalation.
- Disinhibition – Similar to alcohol, many inhalants will make the user feel relaxed and impair judgement, potentially leading to high-risk behavior.
- Nausea/vomiting – The body will often treat inhalants as poisons, causing nausea and vomiting.
- Headache – Particularly with nitrites, dilation of blood vessels can lead to excruciating headaches.
Long Term Effects of Inhalants
Since inhalant use cuts of oxygen, an essential component to a health body and nervous system, many of the long term effects of inhalants involve problems with cognitive abilities or senses. Some of the long term effects include:
- Loss of hearing or smell
- Organ damage
- Memory problems
- Personality changes
In high enough doses, most inhalants will produce anesthesia, or a loss of sensation often accompanied by unconsciousness. If the dose is too high, the user may slip into a coma and die.
Since many inhalants are very concentrated, it only takes a small amount of the drug to cause an overdose.
Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome
Inhalant abuse can cause death even after the first attempt. A major cause of death due to inhalant abuse is Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome. Since inhalants can cut off oxygen, many users die from oxygen deprivation.
Inhalants can also make the user more sensitive to natural chemicals that increase heart rate such as adrenaline. When adrenaline is released to make the heart beat faster, the heart can overreact and end in a heart attack.
Recognizing Inhalant Abuse
Since the effects of inhalant abuse are usually short-lived, it may be difficult to detect inhalant abuse while it is being abused. Nevertheless, the following signs may be signal inhalant abuse:
- Slurred speech
- Inability to hold a conversation
- Disoriented and confused for no apparent reason
- Hidden or suspicious placement of household chemicals such as spray paint, glue, or soaked rags
- Chemical odors on clothing or breath
Treating Inhalant Addiction
Many users may come find the pleasurable feelings associated with inhalant use difficult to resist and may develop an addiction to them.
While users are unlikely to develop physical dependence on inhalants, their addiction may feature psychological dependence. These users may find it difficult to resist urges to use the drug and rely on it to feel normal.
An addiction specialist can help those suffering from inhalant addiction and provide a range of services to support both the user’s physical and mental health.
Behavioral therapies for addiction may be helpful to:
- Change the attitude towards inhalant abuse
- Promote health lifestyle choices
- Stay disciplined in the use of addiction medications
Initial treatment for addiction can start in one of two settings – inpatient or outpatient.
- Inpatient – In an inpatient setting, the user is admitted to a hospital-like residential setting where they can receive around-the-clock support for their addiction. If inhalant abuse has caused significant damage, an inpatient setting may be the best option.
- Outpatient – In an outpatient setting, the user remains at home but visits a healthcare professional on a regular schedule. Many outpatient programs involve individual or group counseling sessions.
Inhalant abuse can cause long-term damage or death in a very short period of time, therefore it is imperative that inhalant addiction be managed as soon as possible.