The Effects and Abuse of Inhalant Drugs

inhalant drugs

Inhalants are chemical substances that are typically inhaled through the nose and mouth to create mind-altering effects. The chemicals are classified as inhalants due to the fact that other routes of administration are rarely used, unlike other abused substances which often have several methods of consumption.

Some inhalants are used for medical purposes, most notably nitrous oxide, which is used as a dental anaesthetic. Other inhalants are found in ordinary household products that are not usually considered drugs since inhaling is not intended or encouraged. Children and young adults abuse inhalants more than any other demographic. The substances are easy to access and most often free or inexpensive.

Inhalant Drugs Explained

Inhalant drugs include substances found in products such as:

  • paint thinner
  • gasoline
  • correction fluid
  • glue
  • aerosol sprays such as hair spray or vegetable oil spray
  • spray paint
  • lighter fluid

Medical anaesthetics such as ether, chloroform and nitrous oxide are classified as inhalant drugs. However, the drugs are usually more difficult for young people to obtain. One exception is nitrous oxide, which can be inhaled from an aerosol whipped cream dispenser. New users typically begin inhaling products like glue or spray paint, then develop habits for substances like gasoline, lighter fluid and nitrous oxide. Inhalant abuse can begin as young as 12 years old and last through adulthood. Children often abuse inhalants recreationally, sometimes as a cure for boredom. As with illicit drugs, recreational use morphs into dependence and addiction.

Administration of Inhalant Drugs

Inhalants can be absorbed in the nose and mouth in a variety of ways. The user may sniff, or “huff,” the fumes from a container. Aerosol substances may be sprayed directly into the nose or mouth or sprayed into a paper bag which is placed over the nose and mouth. Rags or cloth materials can be soaked in liquid substances and placed in the mouth. The fumes are immediately absorbed by the lungs and resemble the fast and intense effects of intravenous injection. The drugs peak so quickly that the effects only last a few minutes. This prompts users to sniff multiple times over several hours to achieve a longer lasting high.

Side Effects of Inhalant Drugs

Inhalants displace air in the lungs causing hypoxia, a condition that deprives the body of oxygen. Hypoxia can damage cells throughout the body, and brain cells are especially sensitive to the effects. Different regions of the brain can be permanently damaged leading to memory loss or the loss of the ability to speak. Long-term abuse can also damage nerve fibers which may affect the users ability to walk or talk. Short-term side effects of inhaling include:

  • nausea or vomiting
  • slurred speech
  • loss of motor skills
  • hearing loss
  • muscle spasms
  • liver or kidney damage
  • blood oxygen depletion

Inhaling chemicals from solvents or aerosol sprays can induce sudden heart failure within a matter of minutes. This is known as “sudden sniffing death.” Death can occur after only one use to a user who has never previously inhaled chemicals. Since oxygen is displaced in the lungs after inhaling, a user may lose consciousness and stop breathing, resulting in death by suffocation. Death from inhaling can happen so rapidly that users, or individuals with the users, may not be able to reach help.

Protecting Children from Inhalant Abuse

Six to eight percent of high school students reported using inhalants within the previous year. The percentages of use among this age group continue to rise. The perception of risk has declined and continues to spark the interest of young adults. Many children and teenagers believe inhalants are not as dangerous as drugs such as cocaine or heroin since inhalants are sold in stores and found in most homes. Restrictions have been put in place to prohibit individuals under age 18 from purchasing products like correction fluid or spray paint. However, if these items are available in the home, children have no restriction to access. Dangerous items should always remain out of reach of children and teenagers. Decreasing use of inhalants in the home is the easiest way to decrease overall use of inhalants in young populations.

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