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Inhalants & Addiction

Inhalant misuse can be very dangerous, leading to a range of negative health effects including sudden death. Although actual inhalant addiction is relatively uncommon, it does still occur. Inhalants have been known to cause physical dependence and cravings.

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What Are Inhalants?

An inhalant is a chemical that primarily acts on the body by being inhaled. When discussing inhalants related to drug use, these are typically substances that produce chemical vapors that, when inhaled, result in a mind-altering effect. [1]

Many inhalants aren’t designed to be inhalants. For example, the fumes from markers and certain paint products can be used as inhalants, even though the intended purpose of these products is very different. People may misuse these chemicals by huffing, sniffing, snorting, or bagging them. Each inhalant has its own name for misusing it. [2]

Importantly, inhalant is a very broad category of drug. Which inhalants people misuse often comes down to cost and availability. There are hundreds of different products people might misuse as inhalants, and these products might contain one of several types of psychoactive inhalants. [1]

Different Types of Inhalants

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) categorizes inhalants into four different types. [1]

1. Volatile Solvents

These are liquids that vaporize at room temperature. They are often widely available and fairly inexpensive. This type of inhalant includes paint thinners, various cleaning fluids, some glues, and felt-tip markers. 

Many of the products people imagine when they think of “inhalant” come from this category.

2. Aerosols

Aerosolized products contain propellants and solvents that work together to achieve the spray effect of a product. There are many different aerosol products available for a wide variety of purposes, including paints, deodorants, hair sprays, cooking oils, and more.

3. Gases

This is a class of inhalants that includes a variety of common commercial and household products as well as several medical-grade ones. Various medical anesthetics fall under the type of inhalant, including nitrous oxide. 

Nitrous oxide is one of the most commonly misused gases, as it is also available in whipped cream dispensers (“whippets”) and certain car products.

4. Nitrites

Nitrites are a unique type of inhalant in that they work by dilating blood vessels and relaxing muscles rather than acting directly on the central nervous system (CNS). They are also used differently than the other types of inhalants listed, generally being misused as sexual enhancers rather than to alter mood. 

Nitrites used to be more widely available, but the Consumer Product Safety Commission has now prohibited them for most use cases.

Signs & Symptoms of Inhalant Addiction

Inhalant addiction can look different for different individuals, and it’s important not to overgeneralize. Generally, however, an inhalants addiction is characterized by a pattern of compulsive use regardless of negative consequences.

People who develop an addiction to inhalants will typically show symptoms from some mix of four categories: [3]

  1. Impaired control over their use of inhalants
  2. Social problems resulting from inhalant abuse 
  3. Inhalant use in risky settings or continued substance use despite known health problems that were caused by substance use
  4. The development of  tolerance for inhalants being misused or the development of physical dependence on the drug

If you do develop a dependence on inhalants, you will experience withdrawal symptoms if you suddenly stop using them. These symptoms may include: [2]

  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Excessive sweating
  • Mood swings
  • Sleep disturbances

These symptoms will range in severity, and not everyone will necessarily exhibit symptoms from every category. If you’re concerned you are addicted to inhalants, seek treatment or a substance abuse assessment.

How Addictive Are Inhalants?

Quick Answer

Inhalant addiction is relatively uncommon, although it is possible to develop a problematic pattern of inhalant abuse, regardless of the adverse effects. Compulsive inhalant use can also cause significant impairment in a person’s life. [1,2]

Inhalant addiction isn’t well documented, so there are some unknowns associated with it. This is made more complex by the wide variety of substances that fall under this category of drug misuse. 

Generally, compared to other substances of abuse, such as opioids, alcohol, sedatives, and stimulants, inhalants aren’t nearly as addictive—however, that doesn’t mean that people don’t become addicted to these chemical vapors. In fact, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) outlines criteria for inhalant use disorder, or addiction, which means it is possible to develop this condition. [5]

Generally, compared to other substances of abuse, such as opioids, alcohol, sedatives, and stimulants, inhalants aren’t nearly as addictive—however, that doesn’t mean that people don’t become addicted to these chemical vapors.

People who engage in inhalant abuse over long periods of time have reported a compulsive need to keep using them as well as withdrawal symptoms when they don’t use them. [4]

Research also indicates that people who use inhalants are more likely to use alcohol, cigarettes, and many other drugs of abuse at younger ages and have higher rates of addiction compared to people who use substances that aren’t inhalants. This suggests that even if inhalant addiction isn’t the most prevalent concern, it can lead to addictions to other substances. [4]

Effects of Inhalants Abuse and Addiction

Inhalant abuse can cause extremely dangerous and harmful effects, both short– and long-term.

Short-Term Effects

In the short term, most inhalants act on the central nervous system. They often cause effects superficially similar to alcohol, including: [1],[2],[4]

  • Dizziness
  • Lightheadedness
  • Euphoria or pleasure
  • Coordination problems
  • Slurred speech

In some cases, people who abuse inhalants may experience hallucinations or delusions while they are intoxicated. [4]

Inhalant use can sometimes cause a person to vomit, feel very drowsy, or have a long-lasting headache.[4]

Long-Term Consequences and Risks

Long-term inhalant use is associated with a variety of health problems, including: [2], [5]

  • Damage to brain, kidney, and liver
  • Hearing loss
  • Damage to bone marrow
  • Nerve damage and associated issues 
  • Behavioral developmental issues due to brain damage
  • Rhabdomyolysis, a dangerous condition in which the muscle breaks down

The use of nitrites as sexual enhancers is also associated with unsafe sexual practices, which can result in getting or spreading sexually transmitted infections (STIs), such as hepatitis or HIV/AIDS. [2]

Unique Dangers of Nitrites

Although nitrites like isobutyl, isoamyl, and cyclohexyl, fall under the category of inhalants, they work a bit differently than most and as such, have some unique dangers and health risks associated with them. 

Animal research has suggested that using nitrites impairs the immune system and can increase the risk of tumors and infectious diseases; however, more research is needed to confirm this correlation in humans. [4]

Can You Overdose on Inhalants?

It is very possible to overdose on inhalants. In fact, it is a major concern associated with any inhalant use. Many of the products people use as inhalants, especially solvents and aerosols, are essentially chemical cocktails that can expose people to many different substances, some in very high concentrations. 

Inhalant use, especially heavy use in one sitting, can cause seizures, coma, and death, sometimes stopping the heart in only a few minutes. Inhalants are associated with sudden sniffing death syndrome, which occurs when people die abruptly after using inhalants. People may die from sudden sniffing death syndrome their first time using inhalants.

It’s also possible to suffocate when engaging in inhalant use, such as if you use inhalants in a closed space and collapse without enough clean, breathable air in the area around you to support your brain’s needs.

Inhalants are associated with sudden sniffing death syndrome, which occurs when people die abruptly after using inhalants.

Overdose Symptoms to Watch Out For

Call 911 immediately if you or someone else experiences the following symptoms after engaging in inhalant use, as it may signal an overdose: [2]

  • Coma, blackout, or seizure
  • Disorientation or severe confusion
  • Chest pain or irregular heartbeat
  • Delusions or hallucinations
  • Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea

Addiction Treatment Options

While inhalant misuse is relatively common, inhalant addiction isn’t as well-recognized. As a result, there isn’t a huge body of research on the best way to treat it. 

However, NIDA notes that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help. This form of psychotherapy helps people to recognize and understand the connection between their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in order to stop using inhalants and develop healthy coping mechanisms. [2]Motivational incentives, where rewards are earned for staying sober, have also been shown to help with inhalant addiction.[2]

Overall, behavioral therapies tend to focus on three things: [8]

  • Modifying patient behaviors and attitudes toward inhalant use
  • Developing and improving a patient’s healthy life skills
  • Helping a patient persist with other forms of treatment, such as medications (although there aren’t any medications approved for the purpose of treating inhalant misuse directly)

In addiction treatment, you’ll learn to build a healthy life that doesn’t involve inhalant misuse. You’ll develop positive coping mechanisms, so you can better cope with triggers without relapsing. And you’ll form a support system that can make it easier to sustain recovery for the long term.

Profile image for Dr. Alison Tarlow
Medically Reviewed By Dr. Alison Tarlow

Dr. Alison Tarlow is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in the States of Florida and Pennsylvania, and a Certified Addictions Professional (CAP). She has been a practicing psychologist for over 15 years. Sh... Read More

Updated June 15, 2023
  1. What Are Inhalants? (February 2011). National Institute on Drug Abuse.
  2. Inhalants. (April 2020). National Institute on Drug Abuse.
  3. What Is a Substance Use Disorder? (December 2020). American Psychiatric Association.
  4. Inhalants Research Report. (July 2012). National Institute on Drug Abuse.
  5. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.) (2013). American Psychiatric Association.
  6. Inhalant Abuse. (April 2008). Indian Journal of Psychiatry.
  7. Inhalants. (June 2020). HealthDirect.
  8. Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction. (January 2019). National Institute on Drug Abuse.
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