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 to 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.
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What Are Inhalants?
Inhalants are chemicals that are inhaled with the purpose to get high. These chemicals often are found in everyday household products, which means access to them is easy and plentiful. Inhalants 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
- Typewriter correction fluid
- Paint thinner
- Shoe polish
They also fall into four categories, which are:
- Aerosols – Household aerosol cans can produce 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 are in this category. Art supplies such as markers, white-out, and glue may also produce fumes.
- Gasses – Gases are a clear 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 make up the majority of inhalant users. 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.
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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 inhalants 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 inhalants users inhale vomit after inhaling harmful chemicals
- Convulsions or seizures – when users experience abnormal electrical discharges in the brain
- Coma – This happens when inhalants use has caused the brain to shut down all but the most important functions.
- Injuries – Inhalants users are at risk of accidents while under the influence of inhalants. This includes driving.
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How Inhalants Affect the Brain, Body
When inhalants enter the body, the lungs absorb the substances into the bloodstream quickly, and this sends it throughout the brain and body, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Brain activity slows down when people inhale chemicals and this produces 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. They also may hallucinate, or see things that aren’t there, or have delusions, which are false beliefs.
Short-term effects of inhalants use include short-lived highs that last between 15-45 minutes. This means users continue to inhale them repeatedly to intensify the feelings they have, which can cause them to pass out and lose consciousness. According to NIDA, repeated inhalants use in one session can lead to a person losing consciousness and leave the person at risk of death. Repeated use also means people may lose their inhibitions and feel like they are less in control. Other short-term effects include drowsiness and headaches.
Inhalants use also has long-term effects. Some inhalants have more than one chemical in their makeup, which means users are at risk of experiencing long-term effects as those chemicals stay in the body for long periods. Fatty brain tissues and the central nervous system absorb the chemicals that linger, increasing the likelihood that users will experience health problems.
Nerve fiber damage, which affects how nerve cells communicate with one another, and damage to the brain cells are long-term effects of inhalants. When nerves have a hard time communicating with one another, muscle spasms and tremors can result. People also can have difficulties with walking, talking, and bending. Inhalants damage brain cells when they block oxygen from getting to the cells. Chronic inhalants users may have a hard time learning new information or carrying on a simple conversation with someone else. They also may struggle with solving problems and or planning ahead.
What Are the Signs of Inhalant Addiction?
According to NIDA, inhalant addiction isn’t common. However, it can still happen. Frequent and chronic inhalants users say they feel the need to continue using the chemicals, and such use can bring on withdrawal symptoms if users reduce or stop their inhalants use altogether. If someone stops inhalants use and feels withdrawal symptoms, then it’s likely the person has developed dependence or addiction.
There are ways to tell if someone is hooked on inhalants. The following indicates that someone may be struggling with inhalants use.
- Slurred speech
- Appearing intoxicated
- Dilated pupils
- Appetite loss
- Nausea and vomiting
- Blistered skin on the face
- Coordination loss
- Mild highs
- Chemical smell reminiscent
- Marks on the skin
- Hidden rags, clothes, bags, empty containers
Other signs that someone’s abuse of inhalants has reached addiction status include:
- 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
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What Is Involved in Inhalant Addiction Treatment?
Some people may seek professional treatment at a drug rehab to end their dependence on or abuse of inhalants. This is advised for anyone who feels they cannot end their use on their own. Several factors should be taken into consideration as rehab is considered, including one’s age, medical condition, drug use history, and how long they have been using. 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.
Overcoming inhalant addiction may not be a short or comfortable process. Longtime users are advised to enter an addiction treatment program and receive help from professionals who can help them navigate their way through recovery. Treatment for inhalants abuse may start with a detox to safely remove all harmful chemicals from the body.
This medically monitored treatment involves around-the-clock care to ensure clients are kept safe and comfortable as they are given medicines and other care to ease withdrawal symptoms and make them manageable. Medical professionals may use a tapering method to wean clients slowly off barbiturates. How the process is set up depends on the individual’s age, drug use history, medical history, physiology, and other factors.
Other substances you may have used in tandem with inhalants may affect the type of addiction treatment you need as well, so be upfront with medical professionals so they can get you the best care possible. Also, keep in mind that there are certain detox medications and precautions that must be taken if there are other substances present in your system.
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.
Once detox is finished, clients are encouraged to enter a treatment program that helps them address their addiction, particularly from the physical and psychological perspectives. These treatment programs can be tailored to an individual’s needs and preferences. Addiction recovery does not look the same for everyone. Recovering users have many options to choose from as they seek to recover from inhalants abuse including residential treatment, outpatient treatment, and several others.
Inpatient treatment, which can last anywhere from 28 days to 90 days in a facility, depending on the program, involves therapies designed to help people work through and overcome addiction. Addiction is a chronic and progressive disorder, which means it cannot be cured and likely will worsen before it improves. Addressing it with evidence-based therapy practices is the most effective way to combat the destructive disorder. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, also known as CBT, can help recovering inhalants users learn and apply skills and coping strategies that can help them identify and correct problematic behaviors that contribute to their drug use. Behavioral support such as this can be effective, NIDA says. Treating the underlying destructive and negative behaviors associated with drug use and abuse of any kind is important. This is the only way to ensure that you or your loved one does not ultimately end up returning to active addiction.
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.
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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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“Inhalant abuse: Is your child at risk?” Retrieved April 10, 2018 from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/tween-and-teen-health/in-depth/inhalant-abuse/art-20044510
Inhalants. (n.d.). Retrieved April 10, 2018 from https://teens.drugabuse.gov/drug-facts/inhalants
Lipari, R, (June, 2017).Understanding Adolescent Inhalant Abuse. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Retrieved April, 2018 from https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/report_3095/ShortReport-3095.html
Court Info, (n,d).Scary Stats. Court Info. Retrieved April, 2018 from http://www2.courtinfo.ca.gov/stopteendui/teens/resources/substances/inhalants/scary-stats.cfm