Inhalant Drugs Overview

Inhalants refer to a class of drugs that can be found around the home and can be inhaled to achieve a high. Products that can be used as inhalants include paint, glue, cleaning fluid and other similar substances. Though these chemicals are not meant to be inhaled, doing so can produce mind-altering effects similar to other drugs like alcohol.

Their inherent risk comes from the fact that they are widely available and are not illegal to purchase. It’s this quality that makes it popular among individuals under 18 years old. In 2020, 12.6% of 8th graders reported using inhalants at some point in their lifetime.

What are inhalants?

Though many drugs can be inhaled, inhalants refer to drugs that can only be used by inhaling. They may be huffed, sprayed into the mouth or nose, or sniffed. In some cases, individuals may use a rag or towel to soak the chemicals in, or they may inhale the chemical out of a bag or balloon.

Inhalants are generally subdivided into specific categories according to their chemical form: aerosols, volatile solvents, gases, and nitrites. Aerosols are sprayed and contain solvents as well as propellants such as hair spray. Volatile solvents are those that vaporize when brought to room temperature. These include gasoline, glue, paint thinners and other paint removing chemicals. Gases include anesthetics like ether, chloroform, and nitrous oxide, which can be found in whipped cream cans.

Nitrites have a different effect on the body than other classes of inhalants. Instead of affecting the central nervous system, nitrites relax the muscles and dilate blood vessels. They are known as “poppers” or “snappers” and may be used to enhance sexual pleasure. These products can be found in medical or commercial products such as those intended to be used in diagnostic procedures.

Commonly Used Inhalants

Commonly used aerosol inhalants include:

  • Spray paint
  • Hair spray
  • Deodorant spray
  • Sprayable cooking oil
  • Fabric protector spray
  • Compressed air cleaners

Commonly used volatile solvents are:

  • Paint thinner
  • Paint remover
  • Gasoline
  • Degreasers
  • Dry cleaning fluid
  • Glue
  • Correction liquid
  • Markers

Gases commonly used as inhalants include:

  • Refrigerants
  • Propane tanks
  • Butane lighters
  • Medical anesthetics:
    • Ether
    • Chloroform
    • Nitrous oxide
    • Halothane

Common nitrites used as inhalants include:

  • Amyl nitrate
  • Butyl nitrite
  • Cyclohexyl nitrite

Effects of Inhalant Use

Inhalant use can produce similar effects to the use of alcohol. Individuals may experience:

  • Impaired judgment
  • Lightheadedness
  • Drowsiness
  • Lack of coordination
  • Slurred speech
  • Headache
  • Giddiness
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea

Due to their unique effect on the body compared to other inhalants, nitrites may produce different effects which include:

  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Elevated heart rate
  • Flushing of skin
  • Increased sensation of body warmth

What Are the Signs of Inhalant Abuse?

Use of inhalants may be identified in individuals according to several warning signs. These signs of inhalant abuse include:

  • Intoxication unrelated to alcohol use
  • Paint stains on the face, hands, or clothing
  • Chemical odors
  • Irritability, excitability or anger that is uncharacteristic to the individual
  • Noticeable sores or around the mouth
  • Runny nose and red eyes
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting that cannot be explained by other illness or substance use
  • Rags that are soaked in chemicals
  • Empty paint cans or other chemicals that don’t have a justifiable use

Dangers of Abusing Inhalants

Inhalant abuse is dangerous due to the high amount of toxic chemicals contained in many household products. Sniffing these chemicals, particularly over a prolonged period of time, may produce damage in various systems of the body such as the nervous system and vital organs.

Because inhalants can cause confusion and impair judgment, they may increase the likelihood of bodily harm or accidents which may be fatal. Inhalant use during pregnancy carries additional risks because it could cause developmental issues in the child including neurobiological delays and skeletal abnormalities.

In addition to these potential dangers, inhalant abuse can be fatal due to:

  • Asphyxiation caused by reduced oxygen availability in the lungs
  • Suffocation when using bag that can block air from entering the airways
  • Convulsions
  • Coma
  • Choking after vomiting
  • Fatal injury or accidents

Treatment for Inhalant Abuse

Though insufficient research has been done to determine whether inhalants can lead to addiction and physical dependence, some users report experiencing symptoms of withdrawal after discontinuing use. These include nausea, vomiting, depression, anxiety, fever, and chills among others.

As such, inhalant abuse that is suspected of becoming problematic can and should be treated like any other addiction. This is particularly true if an individual keeps using inhalants to avoid withdrawal symptoms. Some research indicates that a long detox period may be necessary because of inhalants’ high rate of relapse.

Treatment may involve thorough assessment to determine if other underlying mental health disorders are present including other forms of substance use. Individuals may undergo detox at the beginning of their treatment if they are presently using inhalants. Ongoing treatment during and after detox may include therapeutic interventions, family therapy, and peer group therapy. The aim of therapy would be to uncover issues related to inhalant use that promote and maintain this maladaptive habit. In addition to therapy, other medical treatment may be required as determined by a medical professional.

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