Inhalants are dangerous to abuse. They can wreak havoc on the brain and body, both in the short and long term.
Short-term effects of inhalants include the risk for overdose (sudden sniffing death), along with altered mental status and intoxication. Long-term health effects of inhalant abuse include damage to internal organs and the nervous system as well as cognitive and mental health effects.
Inhalants are volatile substances that are inhaled for their mind-altering effects. Most inhalants are common household products, and there are more than 1,000 products containing chemicals that are dangerous when inhaled.
Inhalants quickly enter the bloodstream through the lungs and are rapidly absorbed into the brain and additional organs. Most inhalants have a depressant effect on the body’s functions.
Inhalant Abuse: How to Tell if You Have a Problem
Close to 2.5 million people in the United States abused an inhalant in 2020.
Inhalants include solvents (liquids that turn to gas at room temperature), nitrates, gases, and aerosol sprays. They are abused by sniffing, bagging, snorting, or huffing. Fumes from common household products are inhaled by nose and/or mouth for a quick onset of effects and a short-lasting mild euphoric “high.”
If you are using household products to get high or for the mind-altering effects they can cause, this is inhalant abuse and signals a problem. Any inhalant abuse can be dangerous.
Key Facts on the Effects of Inhalants
- Inhalants can have an immediate impact on the brain and body. While some of the side effects can be reversed by stopping inhalant use, much of the damage can be irreversible, especially with long-term use.
- One of the serious concerns about inhalant abuse is the risk for sudden sniffing death, which is an overdose that can occur with just one use.
- Inhalant intoxication has a rapid onset but also wears off quickly, which can encourage a user to inhale more and potentially further damage the body and brain.
- Inhalants often have a mildly stimulating or euphoric effect. They also slow down bodily functions and impair thinking and movement.
What Are the Dangers of Inhalants?
Even abusing an inhalant one time can lead to overdose and even death. This is known as sudden sniffing death.
Inhalants are breathed in through the lungs and quickly enter the bloodstream, brain, and internal organs. This can cause intoxication, lowered inhibitions, and more risk-taking behaviors.
Since the high is short-lived, it can encourage a person to keep abusing inhalants repeatedly over a period of hours to sustain the euphoria. This can be especially dangerous, causing damage to the brain and internal organs.
Repeated use of inhalants over a period of time can have serious health consequences. It can lead to chronic health issues, an increased risk for addiction, and significant damage to the brain, heart, and other internal organs, which is potentially irreversible.
Short-Term Effects of Using Inhalants
Inhalants take effect almost immediately after inhaling them and cause intoxication that is often similar to alcohol intoxication. This can include a lack of coordination and slurred speech.
Inhalants have a euphoric effect. The high often includes excitement, talkativeness, laughing, and impaired decision-making processes.
Hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that are not there) and delusions (false beliefs) can also accompany the inhalant high. This high wears off very quickly, which can lead to unpleasant side effects in the crash, including nausea, headache, and vomiting.
Short-term side effects of inhalant abuse can also include the following:
- Irregular heart rate
- Mental confusion
- Slowed reflexes
- Muscle weakness
- Breathing issues
- Risky behaviors
- Unsafe sexual practices
- Loss of consciousness
- Overdose death
Long-Term Effects of Using Inhalants
Repeated use of inhalants can lead to permanent brain and organ damage. It can also increase the risk for drug dependence and addiction.
Chronic health issues can be the result of long-term inhalant use. Some of the potential long-term effects of inhalant use include the following:
- Brain damage: Oxygen is often cut off from the brain when abusing inhalants or from an inhalant overdose, and this damage can be irreversible.
- Behavioral developmental delays: Brain damage and interactions in the brain from inhalant abuse, especially while the brain is still developing during childhood and adolescence, can lead to delays that can impact social and emotional skills.
- Hearing loss
- Damage to the bone marrow, which can increase the risk for leukemia
- Nerve damage, which can lead to limb spasms and lack of balance and coordination
- Liver damage
- Kidney damage
- Increased risk for HIV/AIDS or hepatitis due to unsafe sexual practices, increased risk-taking, and loss of inhibitions
- Weight loss
- Weakened immune system, increasing the risk for infection, illness, and disease
- Depression related to changes in brain chemistry
Are Inhalants Addictive?
Inhalants are not typically addictive, but regular and repeated abuse of inhalants can potentially lead to addiction. Addiction is compulsive drug-using behaviors with an inability to stop use.
Regular use of mind-altering substances can make changes to brain chemistry and wiring, which can lead to drug dependence and withdrawal symptoms when the substance is not active in the system. This can encourage repeated and regular drug abuse.
Chemicals in Inhalants That Cause Risk
There are many chemicals contained inhalants that can be hazardous, which can include the following:
- Benzene: This is found in gasoline. It can increase the risk for leukemia and cause bone marrow damage, a weakened immune system, and problems in the reproductive system.
- Butane and propane: These are contained in hair sprays and lighter fluids. They can cause burns and heart issues.
- Nitrous oxide: This is commonly called laughing gas or whippets. This chemical can cause oxygen deprivation, heart problems, distorted perceptions, loss of sensations, memory loss or “blackouts,” and spasms.
- Hexane: This chemical is found in glues. It can cause many of the same side effects as nitrous oxide.
- Amyl and butyl nitrite: Called snappers and poppers, these chemicals can damage blood cells, cause heart problems, weaken the immune system, and lead to sudden sniffing death.
- Methylene chloride: This is found in degreasers and paint thinners. This chemical can damage the heart and blood cells.
- Freon: Found in refrigerants and aerosols, this chemical can damage the liver, heart, and lungs.
- Toluene: This is contained in White Out (correction fluid), gasoline, and paint thinners. It can impair cognition, cause hearing loss and vision issues, lead to loss of coordination, and cause brain, kidney, and liver damage.
- Trichloroethylene: This is found in degreasers and spot cleaners. This chemical can cause heart and liver damage, hearing and vision loss, and reproductive issues.
What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Inhalant Abuse?
Signs of inhalant abuse can include the following:
- Apparent alcohol intoxication (slurred speech, dizziness, lack of coordination, disorientation, and acting drunk)
- Nausea or loss of appetite and weight loss
- Smelling chemicals on clothing or breath
- Paint or suspicious stains on clothes, face, or hands
- Red eyes and runny nose
- Drop in school grades
- Continually not fulfilling obligations
- Increased secrecy and isolation
- Chemical-soaked clothing, rags, or empty aerosol, paint, or solvent containers
- Mood swings
Can You Overdose on Inhalants?
It is possible to overdose on inhalants even when only using them one time.
Sudden sniffing death can happen no matter how healthy you are. The heart can stop suddenly after being overwhelmed by solvents or aerosol sprays that are often extremely concentrated. Coma, seizure, and death are all possible side effects of an inhalant overdose.
Inhalants & Children
Inhalants are most commonly abused by children and young adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17. Inhalant abuse typically drops off with age, and it is most common in pre-puberty and middle school children.
Inhalants are commonly products that are found around the house, so they are easy for children to access and abuse. They may even seem “safer” since they are products you can buy at the store and not “hard” drugs.
It is important to understand that inhalant abuse in children is especially dangerous. These chemicals can affect the developing brain and internal organs, causing potentially irreversible damage. Brain damage from inhalant abuse can lead to behavioral delays, social and emotional issues, difficulties with learning and memory, and emotional regulation problems.
Inhalant abuse in children can have lasting and permanent effects. For this reason, many states have legislation in place preventing the sale of commonly abused household products to minors.
Treatment Options for Inhalant Abuse
Inhalant abuse can become compulsive and lead to mood swings and withdrawal symptoms when the substance is not active in the brain. Behavioral therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), can be effective in helping to reframe emotional responses, cope with triggers and cravings, and learn how to positively impact behaviors and actions.
Behavioral therapies can work to get to the root of substance abuse, addressing issues that prompted the abuse. Therapy aims to foster healthy habits and uses mindfulness to be more self-aware and improve self-esteem and overall well-being.
Group and individual therapy and counseling can be beneficial treatment methods for inhalant abuse. Family therapy and support options are also optimal when children or teens are struggling with inhalant misuse.
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Inhalants DrugFacts. (April 2020). National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Inhalants. (November 2019). National Library of Medicine.