When thinking of what poses the greatest danger toward children and teens in terms of first-time substance use, most people would probably say marijuana, or possibly alcohol. Either way, inhalants are not typically the first thing someone thinks of in the case of gateway substance abuse.
However, even if inhalant use has not gotten the same public attention as adolescent marijuana abuse, it is still a very real danger, one with potentially deadly consequences.
From cooking sprays to keyboard cleaners, inhalants are legally available chemicals that are easily purchased by young adults for a cheap high that’s far more accessible than either alcohol or marijuana. In fact, much of the time, they don’t even have to buy them, because a wide variety of inhalants can be found in the average household.
The chemicals in inhalants that produce the high can also cause incredibly serious medical complications and even death. They are especially harmful to the still-developing brains of children and young adults, which is quite worrying, as the mean age of first-time inhalant use or abuse in the United States is just 13 years old.
More than 22.9 million Americans have experimented with inhalants at some point in their lives.
What Are Inhalants?
Inhalants are, quite simply, chemical products that are inhaled with the purpose of getting high. These chemicals can be found in a wide variety of household products and include things like:
- Paint thinner
- Nail polish remover
- Aerosol deodorant
- Household cleaning products
- Computer duster
And much, much more.
This is part of what makes inhalants so dangerous, especially as a first-time drug option for children and teens. There are so many kinds of inhalants available and the vast majority of them can be found right in their own homes.
Inhalants can also be classified into four main categories, which are as follows:
Perhaps one of the most obvious examples of a volatile substance that can be used as an inhalant. Gasoline, butane, and propane are the most common types of gases that can be found in households and inhaled. Other less common examples of inhalant gases include ether, chloroform, and nitrous oxide.
Perhaps the easiest to use and obtain, aerosol products like spray paint, hair products, body spray, cooking spray, and even whipped cream cans can all be abused and inhaled for psychoactive effects.
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Products like lighter fluid, paint thinner, and other industrial solvents produce chemical fumes that can be inhaled for psychoactive effects. Other examples include art supplies like white-out, glue, and heavy-duty markers.
More commonly known as “poppers,” nitrites were a popular club drug from the 1970s all the way up through the 1990s. Unlike the other inhalants on this list, poppers were specifically sold as an illicit recreational substance, typically disguised as other legal products such as a leather cleaner or deodorizing spray.
How Do Inhalants Work?
Inhalants work and achieve their effects by depressing the central nervous system to create feelings of sedation and intoxication. This means that they bind and block neurotransmitters in the brain that regulate feelings of excitement and arousal, “turning them off” so to speak, and creating feelings of drowsiness.
The major exception to this rule are inhalants that are known as nitrites. Nitrites do not act on the central nervous system but instead dilate and relax blood vessels.
This increases blood flow and creates a warming sensation. Studies have found that, apart from just using a similar mechanism of action in the brain as other depressant substances, a solvent called toluene that’s found in inhalants such as spray paint, nail polish remover, and airplane glue, activates the brain’s dopamine system, which is responsible for controlling our motivation and reward system. Dopamine plays a role in nearly all forms of substance addiction and points to inhalants as an addictive substance.
The high from inhalant abuse tends to last between roughly 15 and 30 minutes and can be achieved in the following ways:
- Inhaling, which is when someone puts the specific substance in a balloon and then inhales it through the mouth of the balloon
- Sniffing or snorting, a process by which someone inhales fumes directly from the substance’s container
- Spraying, in which an aerosol is sprayed directly into someone’s nose or mouth
- Bagging, which involves soaking a bag with a particular inhalant and then someone putting up to their face or over their head to inhale the fumes
What Are the Effects of Inhalants?
The effects of inhalants on both the body and the brain can be severe and often permanent. The short-term effects of inhalant use include:
- Slurred speech
- Lowered inhibitions and self-control
- Loss of coordination
- Impaired motor skills
- Nausea or vomiting
Over time, the effects of long-term inhalant abuse can have serious consequences to someone’s health, including:
- Limb and muscle spasms
- Hearing loss
- Brain damage
- Bone marrow damage
- Delayed brain development in children
- Liver damage
- Kidney damage
22% of inhalant abusers who died of Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome had no history of previous inhalant abuse—they were first-time users.
What Are the Signs of Inhalant Addiction?
When someone is struggling with an inhalant addiction, it can sometimes be difficult to spot the signs, because inhalant addiction is not as common as other forms of substance abuse, so it may not occur to an observer that this is, in fact, the root of someone’s altered behavior. However, there are some signals that point to an inhalant addiction, as well as general behaviors that are usually indicative of a growing substance use disorder.
In terms of symptoms of inhalant abuse specifically, some signs can include:
- An abundance of related paraphernalia
- Stains from paint or chemical products
- Blistered skin on the face
- A chemical smell on their person
- Missing household products that could be used as inhalants
Some common behavioral changes that can usually be observed in someone who is becoming dependent on a substance include:
- Noticeable decline in work or school performance
- Lack of interest in activites previously enjoyed
- Altered eating and sleeping habits
- Lying or secretive behavior
- Missing money or other valuables
- Attempting to rationalize inhalant use
- Difficulty performing daily tasks
- Decline in personal hygiene and appearance
Whether you have seen these signs of inhalant addiction in yourself or in someone you care about, it is vital that, if nothing else, to seek out medical detoxification services to prevent as much permanent physical and psychological damage as possible.
What Is Involved in Inhalant Addiction Treatment?
In some cases, it becomes necessary to seek treatment at an addiction rehabilitation center in order for someone to end their dependence on inhalants. The first step in recovery treatment is nearly always detoxification, which is a priority in inhalation addiction treatment to mitigate the severe damage inhalant abuse can cause both the body and mind.
Detoxing at a professional medical facility ensures someone’s safety and success in detox because they are monitored 24-7 by a team of experienced medical professionals who can administer medication to ease the withdrawal process and also deal with any health complications that might arise during the course of withdrawal.
Post-detox, it is strongly encouraged that the person continues to ongoing care. Otherwise, the odds of relapse are extremely high. Detox flushes the toxins from someone’s system, but it does nothing to treat the underlying issues that contributed to their addictive behaviors. Without proper treatment that addresses the roots of someone’s addiction, they cannot hope to successfully maintain long-term sobriety.
Whether an individual chooses to go with inpatient or residential treatment or have a mild enough dependence that outpatient treatment is sufficient for their needs, what matters most is that they follow through with recovery treatment.
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How Dangerous are Inhalants?
Because inhalants are not as widely abused as other substances, people might not be aware of the full extent of the dangers associated with chronic inhalant abuse. Inhalants can be just as harmful as illicit drugs and can even kill someone in just one use. Some of the deadly effects of inhalant use include:
Due to the intense sedative effects as well as nausea and vomiting that can occur during inhalant use, it is extremely easy for someone to choke to death on their own vomit after engaging in inhalant use.
Similar to suffocation, this is when the toxic fumes being inhaled take the place of oxygen in the lungs and completely stop someone’s breathing.
Inhalant abuse can create an abnormal level of electrical discharge in the brain and lead to seizures and convulsions, especially in those who are already prone to seizures.
If someone uses the bag method of inhalation, there is a high likelihood of accidental suffocation when the air is unable to enter the lungs.
When oxygen is unable to get to the brain, it shuts down all major bodily functions, and the person enters a coma, which could prove to be fatal if emergency services are not sought in time.
Sudden sniffing death syndrome can occur in someone’s first and only use of inhalants and involves a sudden heart arrhythmia that can lead to fatal heart failure.
If you or someone you care about is currently suffering from an inhalant addiction, don’t wait until it’s too late! Call Ocean Breeze Recovery at (844)-554-9279 to speak with an addiction specialist about getting the professional help and support needed to pursue the path to substance-free life! You can also contact us online to learn more about our wide range of treatment services.
- Inhalant abuse: Is your child at risk? (2018, January 13). Retrieved April 20, 2018, from
- Inhalants. (2017, December 06). Retrieved April 20, 2018, from
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (n.d.). How do inhalants produce their effects? Retrieved April 20, 2018, from