What are inhalants?
Inhalants are chemicals found in certain household and workplace products that produce chemical vapors. These vapors can be inhaled to induce mind-altering effects. Inhaled substances are rapidly absorbed into the brain to produce a quick high. Chronic abuse of inhalants can result in irreversible side effects, such as coma and even death.
Who abuses inhalants?
The peak age of inhalant abuse is age 14 to 15. However, abuse is seen in children as young as 5 to 6 years of age. In many cases, abuse declines by 17 to 19 years of age. However, abuse can continue into adulthood. Inhalant abuse is more common in males than females.
Higher rates of inhalant abuse have been reported in those with a history of physical or sexual abuse, delinquency, criminal behavior, depression, suicidal behavior, antisocial attitudes, family conflict, violence, and/or drug abuse. Rates are also higher in people of lower income, the mentally ill, those living in rural communities and those in communities with high unemployment rates.
Where are inhalant products found?
There are more than 1,000 commonly used household and workplace products that can be abused as inhalants. Inhalants are convenient, inexpensive, easy to hide and legal. There are four general categories of inhalants: volatile solvents, aerosols, gases, and nitrites.
Volatile solvents are liquids that vaporize at room temperature. They are used for household and industrial purposes. Examples of volatile solvents are:
- Paint thinners.
- Paint removers.
- Rubber cement.
- Lighter fluid.
- Nail polish removers.
- Dry cleaning fluids.
- Correction fluids.
- Felt tip markers.
Aerosols are sprays that contain propellants and solvents. Examples of aerosols are:
- Spray paints.
- Spray deodorant.
- Hair spray.
- Vegetable oil spray.
- Fabric protector spray.
Gases include medical anesthetics as well as gases used in household or commercial products. Medical anesthetics include chloroform, halothane, and nitrous oxide (laughing gas). Nitrous oxide is the most abused of these gases and can be found in whipped cream dispensers and propellant canisters (often referred to as “whippets”). Nitrous oxide can also be found in products that boost octane levels in racing cars. Other household products containing gas are butane lighters, propane tanks and refrigerants.
Nitrites are chemical compounds found in leather cleaner, liquid aroma and room deodorizers. Nitrites act directly on the central nervous system. They dilate blood vessels and relax smooth muscles. The ability of nitrites to relax smooth muscle has made their use popular for sexual enhancement. Nitrites include cyclohexyl nitrite, isoamyl (amyl) nitrite, and isobutyl (butyl) nitrite. They are commonly known as "poppers" or "snappers."
Symptoms and Causes
How are inhalants abused?
When individuals abuse inhalants, they breathe them in through the nose or mouth in a variety of ways. They may sniff or snort fumes from a container or dispenser, spray aerosols directly into the nose or mouth, or place a chemical-soaked rag over the mouth or nose. They may also inhale substances from a balloon or a plastic or paper bag. This is called “bagging.” Some abuse inhalants by pouring them onto a shirt collar or sleeves and sniffing them periodically. The high from inhalants only lasts a couple of minutes, so abusers prolong it by repeating sniffing over several hours.
Some slang terms for inhalants are:
- Texas shoeshine.
Some slang terms for abusing inhalants are:
- Snorting or sniffing.
- Huffing .
How do you know someone is abusing inhalants?
Inhalant abusers may show such signs as:
- Chemical odors on the breath or clothes.
- Paint or other stains on hands, fingers or clothes.
- Changes in behavior including apathy (lack of interest).
- Significant decrease in appetite and weight loss.
- Sudden change in friends and hobbies.
- Rapid decline in school performance.
- Poor hygiene and grooming habits.
- Slurred speech.
- Runny nose or nosebleeds.
- Ulcers or irritation around the nose and mouth.
Other symptoms may include:
- Poor concentration.
Diagnosis and Tests
How is inhalant abuse diagnosed?
Inhalants are not detected by routine urine drug screenings, so detection relies on the clinical diagnosis of knowledgeable medical professionals. Clinical testing can show abnormal laboratory results, such as elevated liver enzymes. Blood and other tissues can be tested by gas chromatography technique. Specific urine tests can trace benzene, toluene, and other similar substances when they are abused over a long period of time.
Management and Treatment
What treatments are available for people who become addicted to inhalants?
Treatment methods for inhalant abuse do not differ much from those used to treat addictive behavior. These treatments include individual therapy (cognitive behavioral therapy), family therapy, activity and engagement programs, and aftercare (including support groups).
- Cognitive behavior therapy: This therapy includes teaching how to handle stressful situations, coping with cravings, and resisting offers to use inhalants.
- Motivational interventions: This counselling style helps teens gain their own motivation to commit to change.
- Family counselling: This therapy focuses on improving communication, relationships, actions and behaviors between family members.
- Activity and engagement programs: These programs provide new skills and social experiences and offer an alternative choice to inhalant use. Programs include such activities as movie nights, dances, hiking, and more. These types of programs play an important role in maintaining substance-free life by helping teens engage in new social relationships with others who are non-users.
- Support groups and 12-step programs: These groups, like alcoholics anonymous and narcotics anonymous, help reduce the risk of relapse and help maintain a substance-free life.
Teens who have more severe inhalant abuse may best be treated in a residential treatment program.
Can a person overdose on inhalants?
Yes. Some products, especially solvents and aerosol sprays, have high concentrations of harmful chemicals. Sniffing these products can lead to seizures, coma and sudden cardiac death (heart stops beating) – even for first-time users. Breathing in inhalants from a paper or plastic bag placed over the head can cause death from suffocation. Replacement of oxygen in the lungs with toxic fumes from inhalants can cause death by asphyxiation.
How is an inhalant overdose treated?
Emergency treatment of an inhalant overdose involves treating the life-threatening event that occurs as the result of the overdose – such as stopping the seizure or restarting the heart. There are no specific treatments available to reverse the effects of inhalant intoxication.
Can inhalant abuse be prevented?
Studies have shown that teaching adolescents life skills training in school has helped reduce inhalant use. Life skills training focuses on increasing self-esteem and communication, improving personal relationships, and managing anxiety and pressure. Other school-based programs that target adolescent substance use have produced positive results.
Outlook / Prognosis
What damage do inhalants do to the brain and body?
Inhalants damage nerve fibers, which are the communication network of cells in the brain and body that keep the brain and body working properly. Inhalants also damage brain cells by limiting the amount of oxygen that reaches it. The effects of this damage depend on the area of the brain damaged, but could include:
- Memory problems, personality changes, learning disabilities, hallucinations.
- Speaking problems.
- Complex problem solving and planning and organization problems.
- Vision problems.
- Movement problems (walking problems, muscle spasms and tremors, slow or clumsy movements).
What are the side effects of chemical inhalants?
Inhalants depress the central nervous system, producing short-term side effects similar to that seen with drinking alcohol. The short-term side effects of inhalants abuse include:
- Slurred speech.
- Intense feelings of happiness.
- Loss of coordination.
- Upset stomach.
- Blurred or double vision.
- Mucous membrane irritation.
- Sudden death (irregular and rapid heartbeat that leads to sudden heart failure).
Long term side effects include:
- Lung damage.
- Liver and kidney damage.
- Hearing loss
- Weakened immune system.
- Limb spasms.
- Brain damage.
- Heart rhythm changes.
Where can I get help for inhalant abuse?
- Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
- National Inhalant Prevention Coalition, 423-902-9266 or 1-800-269-4237.
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