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Inhalant Abuse

What are Inhalants?

Inhalant abuse amongst adolescents and young adults is on the rise due to easy accessibility. Inhalants are a group of substances that when inhaled, the chemical vapors produce mind-altering effects. Many products found in the workplace or in homes can be inhaled to get high.

Types of Inhalants Include:

  • Volatile solvents-liquids that vaporize at room temperature
  • Nitrites-used to dilate the blood vessels and relax muscles
  • Gases-used as medical anesthetics and are often found in household products
  • Aerosols-sprays that contain propellants and solvents

The most widely known inhalants are paint thinners, nail polish remover, gasoline, glues, spray cans, butane lighters, and video hand cleaner, also known as “poppers” or “snappers”. Poppers are a type of organic nitrite and are primarily used as a sexual enhancer because of the ability to relax the muscles. The increased heart rate produced from poppers cause euphoria and a head rush, that causes the increase in sexual desire.

Nitrous Oxide

Nitrous Oxide, commonly referred to as “laughing gas”, is the most abused gas. Many inhalant abusers use whipped cream canisters as a source of the nitrous oxide and do what is known as “whippets”, the process of inhaling the nitrous oxide. Inhalants are breathed in either the nose or mouth and can be sniffed from a container, rag, bag, or may be sprayed directly into the mouth. The process of breathing in the chemicals is known as “huffing”. Inhalants produce a high similar to intoxication. The effects include a rush of euphoria and then drowsiness, nausea, light-headedness, and irritability. The high from inhalants only lasts a few minutes however some inhalant users will huff substances repeatedly within a short period of time to attempt to maintain the high which can be a very dangerous process.

Inhalant Effects

Inhalant use does have lethal effects as well as other irreversible effects. Hypoxia occurs when the body is deprived of oxygen, a result of inhalants. This can damage cells all throughout the body but the brain cells are the most sensitive to it. In brain hypoxia, depending on the area of the brain affected, inhalers may lose the ability to learn new things, memory loss can occur, as well as the ability to carry on conversations. Myelin, the fatty tissue that protects and helps nerve fibers send messages, can be damaged from long-term inhalant use. Damage of myelin can cause muscle spasms, tremors, or can even create trouble walking and talking. Other effects of inhalant use include hearing loss, bone marrow damage, liver, and kidney damage. Death is a very serious consequence of sniffing chemicals. Suffocation can occur from high concentrations of inhalants and heart failure can occur, even from trying inhalants once which is why these deaths are known as “sudden sniffing death”.

Inhalant Treatment

Although mild, there are withdrawal symptoms experienced from inhalants. Common symptoms include depression, anxiety, tremors, nausea, aggressiveness, and dizziness. There are treatments that help those stop the use of inhalants and support addicts through the most challenging part; the strong cravings. Residential treatment, 12 step programs, therapy, wilderness programs, and outpatient all offer education on inhalant addiction and make recovery a possibility. For more information about inhalant treatment please visit this SAMHSA news release.