Cooking spray, glue, nail polish remover, and even nail polish itself are all different items with different purposes. But to a person with an inhalant addiction, they share one purpose—all can be used to get high. These items and countless others are easy to find and use, and they’re cheaper than alcohol and other drugs. Because of that, people, mainly teens and adolescents, who need a quick fix abuse them at levels that can prove dangerous down the line. Inhalants abuse can lead to a physical dependence and psychological addiction. Chronic users are putting their health and lives at risk by misusing these everyday items.

What are Inhalants?

Inhalants are chemicals that are inhaled with the purpose to get high. These chemicals are found in everyday household products. Inhalant use occurs when users put chemicals into their bodies through “huffing,” or the practice of breathing in chemicals through the nose or mouth. Commonly abused inhalants include:

  • Household cleaners
  • Deodorants
  • Typewriter correction fluid
  • Paint thinner
  • Gasoline
  • Shoe polish

They also fall into four categories, which are:

  • Aerosols – Household aerosol cans can cause dangerous psychoactive effects. This group includes spray paints, hair products, body spray, and vegetable oil sprays.
  • Solvents – Household and industrial products often produce fumes that are inhaled for their psychoactive effects. Paint thinners, gasoline, lighter fluid, and other cleaning fluids fall into this category. Art supplies, such as markers, white-out, and glue may also produce fumes.
  • Gasses – Gases are an example of volatile substances used as inhalants. Gasoline, butane (used in lighters), and propane are commonly found around households. Certain medical chemicals, like ether, chloroform, and nitrous oxide can also be used, but they are far less common.
  • Nitrates – Nitrates are products that are sold specifically as inhalants amyl nitrates. They’re also called poppers, a popular drug used in clubs in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. They are typically sold as other products to disguise their true nature, such as like leather cleaner or room odorizer.

Because these household items are around and easily accessible, teenagers are the major group to abuse those substances. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), inhalants are among the first drugs young adolescent students use. Use can become chronic and continue into one’s adulthood.

These chemicals, which are either compressed air or volatile substances (referring to substances that are gaseous at room temperature), are inhaled without the use of an external heat source. Huffing can also be called spraying (when inhaling compressed substances), sniffing, or bagging, which is based on the practice of placing substances in paper bags and inhaling.

Some people may be thinking inhalant abuse isn’t as bad as doing harder drugs. But think again. NIDA reports that inhalant use can cause death, even if a person uses it one time. This can happen by:

  • Asphyxiation – when toxic fumes take the place of oxygen in the lungs and stop the person’s breathing.
  • Suffocation – when air cannot enter the lungs after fumes are inhaled from a plastic bag over the user’s head
  • Sudden sniffing death – when the heart beats irregularly and quickly before it stops beating, which means the user is in cardiac arrest.
  • Choking – when inhalant users inhale vomit after inhaling harmful chemicals
  • Convulsions or seizures – when users experience abnormal electrical discharges in the brain
  • Coma – This happens when inhalant use has caused the brain to shut down all but the most important functions.
  • Injuries – Inhalant users are at risk of accidents while under the influence of inhalants. This includes driving.

How Inhalants Affect the Brain, Body

When inhalants enter the body, the lungs absorb the substances into the bloodstream quickly, and blood transports it throughout the brain and body, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Blood vessels in the brain and body dilate as a result of inhalant use, and a larger amount of blood rushes into those areas, which slows down brain activity and creates pleasurable feelings. Users typically feel effects similar to alcohol intoxication within seconds after they use inhalants. These effects include lightheadedness, dizziness, slurred speech, lack of coordination, and euphoria. Users also may hallucinate, or see things that aren’t there, or have delusions, which are false beliefs.

Short-term effects of inhalant use last between 15-45 minutes. Sometimes an inhalant might be used several times during one incident to intensify the influence of substances. According to NIDA, repeated inhalant use during an episode might cause drowsiness, headaches, and loss of consciousness.

Inhalant use also has long-term effects. Some inhalants have several different chemicals in their makeup, which increases the risk that those chemicals will affect the brain and body slightly differently.  Fatty brain tissues can absorb the chemicals, which might result in dissolving a wall of brain cells, and that might result in the death of the brain cells.

Nerve cells and fibers damage can affect communication between neurons, which is considered as a long-term effect of inhalant use. Disruptive neural pathways can result in severe muscle tremors and rigidity. People might be experiencing difficulty with walking, talking, and even breathing. Distorted communication between neurons might cause severe issues with learning new information, planning, or solving everyday problems.

What are the Signs of Addiction?

According to NIDA, inhalant addiction is not very common. However, chronic inhalant users can experience withdrawal symptoms after stopping substance use, which shows that they already have tolerance and dependence on inhalants.

There are ways to tell if someone is hooked on inhalants. The following indicates that someone may be struggling with inhalant use. They are:

  • Slurred speech
  • Appearing intoxicated
  • Dilated pupils
  • Appetite loss
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Blistered skin on the face or where the inhalant broke the skin
  • Hallucinations
  • Sedation
  • Motor skills coordination loss
  • Mild highs
  • Chemical smell reminiscent of fresh paint
  • Marks on the skin could be present on the mouth and nose
  • Hidden rags, clothes, bags, empty containers of products that could be abused

Other Signs that Someone’s Abuse of Inhalants Has Become an Addiction:

  • Strong, seemingly unbearable drug cravings
  • Constantly thinking about inhalants
  • Not using chemicals in the manner it was intended
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms 24-48 hours after the drug is last taken
  • Taking the drug to avoid withdrawal symptoms
  • Hiding use from family, friends, colleagues
  • Isolation from others; strained relationships
  • Inability to stop using the drug despite repeated attempts to quit
  • Feeling like you can’t function without inhaling chemicals
  • Mixing an inhalant with alcohol (polysubstance abuse)
  • Using inhalants despite the negative consequences that result from doing so, such as job loss, strained relationships

What is Involved in Treatment?

Some people may seek professional help at a drug rehab to quit abusing inhalants. This approach is advised for anyone who is experiencing withdrawal symptoms. Also, age, medical condition, inhalant use history, and duration are additional factors that should be considered. If a person is using inhalants along with other drugs or alcohol, this should be taken into consideration as well. Addiction treatment at a rehab center may be the course of action.

*Quitting the use of inhalants may be a long and uncomfortable process. Longtime inhalant users are advised to enter an addiction treatment program and receive professional help. Treatment for inhalant abuse should start from detox, where possible withdrawal symptoms will be appropriately addressed.

This medically monitored detox involves around-the-clock medical and nursing care to ensure the client’s safety and comfort. Medications, emotional support, and other care should ease withdrawal symptoms. Medical professionals along with the client’s involvement will develop a treatment plan that is individualized based on the individual’s age, drug use history, medical history, physiology, and other factors.

If other substances had been used in combination with inhalants, medical professionals would help adjust the treatment plan so that the client gets the best evidence-based care possible.

Certain withdrawal processes from other substances can present serious physical consequences, including life-threatening seizures. The unpredictable nature of some of these various withdrawal processes require specialized detox medications and plans to avoid serious detox side effects.

Some substance withdrawal processes can be complicated and present a risk of life-threatening seizures. In those cases, specific detoxification medications can be used to avoid serious health risks. Once detox is finished, clients are encouraged to continue with the treatment programs that help to stabilize mental health status.

The programs also incorporate learning more effective coping skills and to practice newly acquired anger management techniques. Residential treatment, partial hospitalization treatment, and intensive outpatient treatment options are available to every client who wants to continue the recovery.

Inpatient treatment, which can last up to 90 days, depending on the level of care, involves various therapies designed to help individuals with their needs. Addiction is a chronic and progressive disorder and, unfortunately, cannot be cured; however, the disorder can be treated and managed. Applying evidence-based treatment approaches and practices into the treatment process is the most effective way to combat destructive disorder.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy, also known as CBT, can help recovering inhalant users identify and correct problematic and negative thinking, which allows changing behaviors that contribute to their drug use. The therapy will help to learn and apply more effective coping skills and strategies.

Correcting the underlying destructive and negative behaviors associated with drug use and abuse of any kind is an essential component. This therapeutic approach is evidence-based practice to ensure that you or your loved one does not ultimately end up returning to active addiction.

Twelve-step programs, SMART Recovery, holistic therapies such as yoga and acupuncture, and individual counseling and group counseling are also available. NIDA reports that drug treatment that lasts at least three months, or 90 days, gives people the best chance of recovering from substance abuse.

Outpatient treatment may appeal to clients who have a mild case of inhalation addiction. Outpatient therapy provides more flexibility as clients stay in their own residence as they work drug treatment into their schedules. Clients are required to attend structured sessions three to five times a week or more and are completely responsible for keeping their environment free of negative influences that can that can impair their recovery.

Leaving behind inhalant addiction will require more than just going to rehab. Upon leaving treatment, recovering inhalant users may want to consider using aftercare services to support them as they focus on their recovery goals and reduce their chances of relapse. Some people pursue follow-up medical care and ongoing therapies to help manage post-acute withdrawal symptoms, known as PAWS, that can happen long after dependence on inhalants has passed.

It’s always important to seek both medical and clinical intervention whenever dealing with any kind of addiction. Your health and safety are of the utmost importance, so ensuring you or your loved one gets proper addiction treatment should be your No.1 priority.

Withdrawal and Overdose: How Dangerous are Inhalants?

Developing a physical dependence on inhalants is possible, but the chances are low when compared with other drugs including alcohol. However, a psychological addiction can develop quickly with repeated use.

One sure sign that addiction has occurred is if you or your loved one notices physical and psychological changes once inhalant use stops. If so, those changes are known as withdrawal symptoms, which can be mild but uncomfortable. These symptoms include nausea, cravings, irritability, depression, and anxiety, among others. Quitting these substances cold turkey is not recommended, and ending dependence should be done with the help of a doctor or medical professional. Long-term inhalant users are at risk of having seizures.

However, the longer one uses inhalants and how much they use increases the dangers of them. Chronic exposure to chemicals can damage the body’s vital organs and affect a person’s cognition, movement, vision, and hearing.

If you or someone you know has misused or abused chemicals as inhalants, seek medical help at a hospital or a licensed treatment center immediately. As mentioned earlier, inhaling large amounts of chemicals can be fatal, and all it takes is one time for that to happen.

Inhalant Addiction Statistics

  • 22.9 million people in the U.S. say that they have abused inhalants at least once
  • In 2015, 3.4% of 12- and 13-year-olds reported abusing inhalants
  • 6.7% of Americans under the age of 18 say that they abused felt-tip pens in 2015
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