What Are Inhalants?
Inhalants cover a phenomenal range of chemicals—anything that can be inhaled without burning or heating. Inhalant abuse can mean sniffing the fumes of:
Glue to get a mellow high.
Amyl nitrite to get an intense high.
Nitrous oxide to be sedated.
The sources and users of these vary significantly.
Types of Inhalants
Spray paints and glue tend to be used by teenagers. They’re relatively cheap and very easy to obtain. They produce a high that’s followed by a mild crash, and they leave their users feeling zoned out. Solvents, in particular, have a very short high – often lasting for minutes. As a result, people tend to inhale, wait for a couple of minutes, and inhale again, leading to a sustained high.
Nitrous oxide, popularly known as laughing gas, is often found in whipped cream as a propellant. It can also be bought in small canisters, originally intended for dental practices. Again, this tends to be sprayed into a bag and inhaled. Ether and other gaseous anesthetics have similar properties.
Solvents, aerosols and medical gases all work via the central nervous system; they slow down the connections in the brain, forcing the body to relax.
Poppers are slightly different, although they’re also inhalants. Poppers are little vials of amyl nitrite, and they cause an intense high and relax the body’s muscles and blood vessels. They are more of a club drug for adults than a drug for teenagers.
A general loss of motor control.
Users will look like they’re drunk.
Nausea and vomiting.
Loss of appetite.
Facial rash where the inhalant blistered the skin.
You’ll often notice a strange smell—a distinctive chemical-like smell that reminds you of fresh paint.
Users might also have marks around their mouth and noses, particularly if they’re sniffing paint.
Effects of Inhalant Abuse
Risk of Frozen Trachea
Someone who abuses inhalants by spraying them into their mouths could suffer from a frozen trachea.
What happens here is that the aerosol has to change from being a liquid to a gas, and it needs heat to do so. It takes heat from the surrounding area – normally the mouth – and this can lead to freezing, an agonizing way to die.
The long-term effects of inhalant use tend to be extremely nasty. Brain damage is the top one. Because these drugs quickly penetrate the blood-brain barrier (a protective ‘shield’ around the brain), you’ll notice that the effects kick in quickly. However, adding a load of butane gas to your brain isn’t healthy. Associated with brain damage are muscle weakness and depression. You might also notice a loss of sensation and severenosebleeds.
As with many drugs, the long-term effects can include death. The body simply is not designed to handle inhalants, and the most common way to die is known as sudden sniffing death – the heart simply stops after inhaling solvents. This can happen the first time you inhale solvents or the thousandth time.
Inhalant Abuse Treatment
Generally, anyone who has been found sniffing inhalants should get treatment immediately. If a person is unconscious, call 911 immediately and remove them from the toxic environment of the inhalant. After that, the person needs to attend an inhalant rehab to get treatment.
Usually, treatment consists of getting the person stable and in a position where they can attend therapy. The individual will receive treatment in the ER for any medical complications related to the inhalant use.
Therapy is the next step. Therapy will help the addict to understand why they took inhalants and the dangers of doing so. It will also aim to address any underlying causes, including depression or antisocial behavior disorder. Because inhalants tend to be popular drugs of abuse among teens, those dealing with inhalant addiction will likely be specialized in dealing with younger people.
Once a patient is judged well enough to leave the treatment program, they will be released (if they are in a residential rehab) or the program will simply end (for an outpatient clinic). Attending relapse prevention programs and support groups is the next step while the recovering addict creates new friendships and aims to stay away from the conditions that lead to the inhalant abuse. Recovery is a lifelong commitment so continued support is needed.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), more than 21 million Americans 12 years old or older admitted to using inhalants at least once in their lives 1. Because even one use can be fatal, this number is alarming.
While inhalant use is generally more common in teens (see below), it is not limited to this population. NIDA found that 13.1% of Americans between 18 and 25 admitted to using inhalants at some point, while 9.6% of Americans over age 25 report at least one lifetime use 2.
Teen Inhalant Abuse
In 2015, inhalant use was more common among adolescents aged 12 to 17 than any other age group 3. Roughly 2% of 8th graders, 1.2% of 10th graders, and 0.7% of 12th graders reported using inhalants in the past month 4.
Teens form the bulk of the inhalant-using population, with around one in 11 teens or young adults trying them at least once.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse 5:
New users between the ages of 12 and 15 will typically true glue, paint, lighter fluid, and gasoline.
Older teens between 16 and 17 will usually abuse nitrous oxide.
By keeping solvents and sprays well away from children and teens, you can greatly reduce the risk of abuse.
Resources, Articles and More Information
NIDA has a great fact sheet on inhalants for teens, and there are numerous inhalant statistics to be found on its main website. The following articles will also provide additional information:
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2012). Letter from the Director.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2102). Inhalants.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2015). Results from the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Detailed Tables (HHS Publication No. SMA 16-4984, NSDUH Series H-51).
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2015). Monitoring the Future Study: Trends in Prevalence of Various Drugs.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2102). Drug Facts: Inhalants.
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