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What are inhalants?

Reading time: 7 mins

Inhalants are substances that people inhale to achieve a specific effect. Some people use inhalants to experience euphoria or “high,” whereas others choose them to enhance sexual function. While some inhalants have medical purposes, others are easily available items like paint remover or glue.

Inhalants can be damaging to the body, like other substances that people misuse. They can also lead to abuse or addiction. Symptoms of abuse to inhalants strong cravings to use inhalants, strong odors on clothes and breath, runny nose or nosebleeds, a significant reduction in appetite and weight loss, and tiredness.

Other symptoms of inhalant abuse include paint or other stains on fingers/hands/clothes, lack of interest and other changes in behavior, sudden change of social circle, a significant decline in school performance, poor grooming habits and hygiene, and ulcers or irritations around mouth and nose.

Men are more likely to use inhalants, like many other substances. Reasons they may start using inhalants include peer pressure or spending a lot of time with people who do. Adolescents are more likely than adults to use inhalants. Many teens use these chemicals due to exposure to substance abuse at home. People with a history of inhalant abuse, or other substance use disorders, are more susceptible to developing an addiction to inhalants.

Low socioeconomic status is also among the risk factors for inhalant abuse. The average age range of patients who use inhalants is from 12 to 17.

The main characteristic of inhalant abuse is an unsuccessful attempt to stop using these chemicals. Some people abuse inhalants because they firmly believe these chemicals are harmless.

The misuse of inhalants induces both short- and long-term damage to our internal organs and both physical and psychological health and wellbeing. Fortunately, inhalant abuse is a manageable problem.

Treatment of inhalant drug abuse revolves around therapy. Patients attend individual sessions, but family therapy also helps. Some patients may receive medications to manage withdrawal symptoms. A strong support system is also important for recovery, primarily because many children and adolescents try and use inhalants to cope with a dysfunctional environment at home.


What are inhalants?

Inhalants are substances whose main characteristic is that their route of administration is inhalation only. However, the term inhalant is also used to refer to chemical vapor-producing substances that can be inhaled to achieve mind-altering, psychoactive effects. Many people, especially young persons, inhale the vapors from these products to achieve a “high” effect quickly. They usually aren’t aware inhalants can be harmful and addictive.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse in 2020, about 2.4 million people aged 12 or older reported using inhalants to get “high” in the past year. In 2021, around 4.8% of 8th-graders, 2% of 10th-graders, and 1.8% of 12th-graders reported inhalant use in the past year. 

Among people who reported inhalant use in 2020, around 215,000 of them had inhalant use disorder in the past year.

Other interesting facts about inhalants also show that 22.9 million Americans have experimented with inhalants at some point in their lifetime.


What are other terms or common street names for inhalants?

Other terms for inhalants are rush, laughing gas, poppers, snappers, bold, and whippets. 

Generally speaking, each street name refers to a specific type of inhalant. For example, rush and bold refer to nitrites, laughing gas refers to nitrous oxide, snappers and poppers to amyl nitrite and butyl nitrite, while whippets name is used for fluorinated hydrocarbons.

Other street inhalants names include aimies (amyl nitrite, amphetamines), bolt, bullet, quicksilver (isobutyl nitrite), and whiteout (isobutyl nitrite inhalants).

The act of using inhalants has various street names as well. These include air blast, glading, bagging, huffing, bang, highball, and bullet bolt.

What are the types of inhalants?

There are four different types of inhalants, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The types of inhalants are listed below.

  • Gases: commercial or household products such as cooling liquid fluids, butane (from lighters), and propane (gas grills). Medical anesthetic gases also fall into this category. They include nitrous oxide, halothane, chloroform, and ether
  • Volatile solvents: liquids that vaporize at room temperature, such as dry cleaning fluids, paint thinners and removers, gasoline, degreasers, electronic contact cleaners, correction fluids, glues, and felt-tip marker fluids
  • Nitrites: special types of inhalants used primarily as sexual enhancers. Organic nitrites include butyl, amyl, and cyclohexyl nitrites and similar compounds known as poppers. Most poppers contain butyl nitrite or isobutyl nitrite, which are sold in small brown bottles labeled as a leather cleaner, room odorizer, and liquid aroma
  • Aerosols: sprays that contain solvents and propellants. These include hair and deodorant sprays, spray paint drugs, vegetable oil cooking sprays, fabric protector sprays, and whipped cream dispensers 

Not all inhalants are the same. Most of them are everyday products that people can easily purchase in any physical or online store. That’s why inhalants and abuse of these products are so dangerous. Even though there is a large number of inhalants people use, we can categorize them into four major categories:

  1. Nitrites
  2. Gases
  3. Liquids 
  4. Sprays 


What are the fatal side effects when you use inhalants?

Fatal side effects that occur when you use inhalants include suffocation, permanent brain damage, and sudden sniffing death. Suffocation may occur because some people sniff inhalants from a plastic bag. Sometimes they pass out while the plastic bag is still around their mouth and nose. They suffocate due to a lack of oxygen. 

Death occurs due to heart failure caused by inhalant drugs. Also, high doses of some inhalants can damage nerves.

The use of inhalants has other serious side effects too. These include loss of concentration, hearing loss, muscle spasms, short-term memory loss, loss of motor control, and weakened immune system. Some people may engage in unsafe sexual practices and risk getting STDs and HIV.

Besides long-term, serious side effects, inhalants produce short-term adverse reactions too. Some of these reactions are nausea, headache, vomiting, loss of balance, mood changes, dizziness, and slow and slurred speech. 

People tend to use inhalants to achieve euphoria or excitement. However, these effects don’t last long. Uncomfortable effects are more pronounced and only confirm that inhalants can be dangerous.

How long does the high from inhalants last?

While it takes several breaths to produce the “high”, this effect lasts only up to 45 minutes. The high lasts longer when users inhale repeatedly. For that reason, it’s not uncommon for people to take additional breaths in order to sustain the “high” for several hours. 

As the effects of inhalants are wearing off, the user may experience drowsiness and hangover-like symptoms including mild-to-severe headaches for a couple of days.

It’s useful to mention the effects of nitrites and nitrous oxide are instant and tend to wear off in a few minutes, Canada’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) confirms.

Can Inhalants cause damage to your internal organs?

Yes, the use of inhalants can cause internal damage to your organs. Abuse or addiction to inhalants can cause damage to the brain, heart, kidneys, liver, bone marrow, and other organs in the body. Inhalants damage the internal organs because these chemicals are rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream through the lungs and are quickly distributed to the brain and other organs and tissues.

Evidence shows inhalants are associated with various cardiovascular effects including bradycardia due to vagal stimulation, myocardial ischemia, and infarction decreased sinoatrial node automaticity with AV block. Chronic use of inhalants can lead to myocarditis and other serious heart problems. 

Inhalants can cause damage to the brain, especially with chronic use. These substances decrease oxygen flow to the brain. Brain cells need oxygen to thrive. So, without enough oxygen, brain cells may die. Additionally, the myelin sheet around nerve fibers deteriorates too. As a result, the transmission of nerve impulses slows down and leads to reduced physical and cognitive functioning. In other words, chronic inhalant use can impair cognitive skills, regardless of the user’s age.

Many inhalants can cause kidney lesions due to the toxic chemicals they contain. The most significant harmful chemical in these products is toluene. This particular chemical is associated with renal tubular acidosis, a condition wherein acid accumulates in the blood. When left unmanaged, renal tubular acidosis can lead to chronic kidney disease and kidney failure.

Chronic inhalant abuse prompts the liver to accumulate fat. The liver also becomes scarred and hard to the touch. As a result, an inhalant user is at risk of sudden liver failure. People who don’t stop using inhalants are also at risk of liver cancer.


Are inhalants used for medical purposes?

Yes, some inhalants are used for medical purposes as anesthetics. These inhalants include ether, chloroform, nitrous oxide, and halothane. 

The use of ether in anesthesiology started in 1846. However, this anesthetic is banned in developed countries. Developing nations still use it due to its low cost.

Chloroform was also widely used to reduce pain during surgical procedures. In the mid-1900s, doctors started switching to other anesthetics. Today, chloroform isn’t used in medical settings due to its potentially harmful effects.

A colorless gas, nitrous oxide, is used mainly for sedation and pain relief. Dentists usually administer nitrous oxide to patients who are undergoing minor procedures. 

Halothane is used for general anesthesia. It decreases blood pressure and frequently depresses respiration and reduces the pulse rate. Halothane promotes muscle relaxation and alters tissue excitability to decrease pain sensitivity. 

Besides anesthetics that have been or are still used today, some people abuse asthma inhalers. Children and adolescents do so primarily. While asthma inhalers aren’t addictive, some people can become psychologically dependent on them, especially if their asthma isn’t under control.


How to treat inhalant addiction?

Inhalant addiction treatment focuses on psychotherapy. More precisely, it’s similar to the treatment of other addictive behaviors. The cornerstone of the treatment of inhalant addiction is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). Other treatment approaches include motivational interventions, family counseling, support groups, and activity and engagement programs. 

Cognitive-behavioral therapy teaches patients to cope with stressful situations and negative stimuli in order to stop using inhalants.

Motivational interventions are also important in the treatment of inhalant addiction. This type of counseling helps patients with inhalant addiction, primarily adolescents, gain motivation and commit to change. 

The role of family counseling is to improve communication between family members in order to help a patient with inhalant addiction. This is primarily useful in situations where the home environment contributes to inhalant abuse, according to a study from Paediatrics & Child Health.

Activity and engagement programs offer an alternative choice to inhalant use by helping patients develop new skills and social experiences. Hiking, dancing, movie nights, and other activities help patients with inhalant addiction overcome their problems and maintain a substance-free lifestyle.

Besides CBT, support groups and 12-step programs are equally important for overcoming inhalant addiction and preventing relapse. Support groups allow people with the same problem to share their experiences and receive and offer support.

When an addicted person stops taking inhalants, they may experience withdrawal symptoms. In inhalant addiction, withdrawal symptoms are usually mild, but they can be challenging. It’s useful to mention withdrawal occurs in the first stage of addiction treatment, called detox.

Withdrawal symptoms can be physical and psychological. They include cravings, hand tremors, irritability, hallucinations, rapid heartbeat, excessive sweating, runny eyes or nose, anxiety and depression, headache, nausea and vomiting, dizziness, mood swings, restlessness, poor memory, anger, insomnia, and others.

According to a paper from the Medical Hypotheses, symptoms of inhalant withdrawal in heavy inhalers resemble the nature and severity of alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

Inhalant addiction withdrawal symptoms occur within 24 to 48 hours after the last use of these substances. In most cases, they go away within a week. Inhalant withdrawal treatment may include medications to manage depression, nausea, and other symptoms if necessary. Some patients don’t need medications at all. For this reason, detox should be performed under medical supervision.