When most people think of the effects of drug use, they think of illegal street drugs that are the typical subjects of drug abuse prevention campaigns. Rarely do they think of the effects that result from the abuse of inhalants — common products that are kept around most homes, such as cleaning and maintenance products kept under the sink, in the bathroom, in the basement, or in the garage.
Inhalants are commonplace household products that produce chemical vapors that can be inhaled to produce the same type of euphoric or intoxicated state of mind as illegal drugs or alcohol. Although some types of illegal drugs are often taken in by inhalation — such as smoking crack cocaine — the term “inhalants” is reserved for substances that are rarely, if ever, taken into the body through any other procedure. The category of inhalants is large and diverse. It includes common products such as glue, nail polish remover, lighter fluid, spray paints, paint thinners and removers, deodorant, hair spray, cleaning fluids, correction fluid, gasoline and felt-tip markers.
Categories of Inhalants
The wide variety of products containing chemicals that can be inhaled makes it difficult to create a finite list of common inhalants. Typically, studies list four general categories of inhalants:
- Volatile solvents
Volatile solvents are liquids that are found in a variety of common household cleaners. Aerosols are products that come in spray cans, including cleaning products, personal hygiene products and cooking oil sprays. The gases category includes any product that contains nitrous oxide, chloroform, ether or halothane, such as whipped cream dispensers, butane lighters and propane tanks. Nitrates are currently regulated but can still be found in liquid products such as video head cleaners and leather cleaners.
For many young people, using a common household product as a way to get high is their first, and most accessible, introduction to drug abuse. The 2008 National Survey on Drug Use and Health determined that there were 729,000 first-time users ages 12 and over within the past year, and over 70 percent of that number were under the age of 18. Inhalant abuse seems to peak in the 8th grade, according to the NIDA’s Monitoring the Future survey. Almost 15 percent of 8th graders have reported using inhalants.
Even a single episode of abuse of these types of products can have serious and permanent health consequences.
What are the Short-Term Effects?
Typically, people abuse inhalants because the chemicals produce the same type of intoxicating effects as alcohol. Inhaling chemicals introduces them into the lungs and bloodstream, quickly distributing them to the brain and throughout the body. The short-term effects of inhalant use are experienced within seconds of inhalation. Common symptoms of inhalant intoxication include the following:
- Slurred speech
- Lack of coordination
In addition, there are short-term effects of inhalant use that are tied to the specific chemicals in a particular substance. The chemicals in certain aerosol sprays, for example, can cause belligerence, apathy, confusion, delirium, stupor and impaired judgment. Inhaled nitrates increase heart rate and produce a rush of heat, dizziness and excitement.
Inhalant intoxication typically lasts for only a few minutes. This short duration of the effects of inhalant makes it particularly dangerous for abusers. People who abuse inhalants often seek to prolong the state of intoxication by inhaling repeatedly. It is even more likely that inhalant abuse will result in dangerous consequences with repeated use in a short amount of time. With each successive inhalation, the abuser may feel less inhibited and less in control, experience extreme drowsiness, and lose consciousness.
The most devastating short-term effect of inhalant use is sudden death. The high concentration of chemicals can induce irregular heartbeats and lead to fatal heart failure within minutes of inhalation. This result is known as “sudden sniffing death” and can result from a single session of inhalant abuse by an otherwise healthy person. Sudden death can also result from the chemicals in inhalants inducing asphyxiation, suffocation, convulsions, seizures and choking.
Long-Term Effects of Abuse
The chemicals used in the products that are typically abused are extremely toxic. They were never intended to be taken into the human biological system. Long-term inhalant abuse can have devastating effects on the brain and central nervous system. Inhalant abuse can damage other organs as well, including the heart, kidneys, lungs and liver.
For example, chronic exposure to toluene (the chemical in glue) or naphthalene (the active chemical in mothballs) damages nerve fibers in the brain and central nervous system. This damage produces health consequences that are substantially similar to multiple sclerosis. People who have damaged their bodies in this way have problems with cognitive processing, movement, vision and hearing. Inhalant effects can range from mild to severe. Unfortunately, these health consequences are often permanent.
Identifying inhalant abuse by a loved one in the early stages is the best way to prevent the practice from causing irreparable damage to the person’s health. Common signs of addiction to inhalants include the following:
- An unusual smell of chemicals on the breath or clothing
- Household chemical stains on clothing, face or hands
- Slurred speech
- Apparent intoxication or disorientation
- Loss of appetite
- Lack of coordination
If you suspect a loved one is abusing inhalants or suffering from an addiction to the effects of inhalants and don’t know the best course of action to take, help is just a phone call away. Our addiction treatment advisors can help you assess your options. Call us at for a free, confidential consultation.
- People who abuse inhalants can turn almost any chemically based household product into their drug of choice. For example, a popular inhalant in certain parts of the country is a shoe-shining spray known as “Texas shoeshine” that contains the chemical toluene.
- Toluene — a common solvent in many inhalants, including glue, paint sprays, and nail polish removers — activates the brain’s reward system, flooding it with dopamine. Dopamine plays a role in the intoxicating effects of nearly all types of drugs.
- The number of deaths from inhalant abuse in the United States ranges between 100 to 200 per year.