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Inhalant Use Disorder

Inhalant Use Disorder

Although other substances that are misused can be inhaled, the term inhalants refers to the various substances that people typically take only by inhaling. These substances include:

  • solvents (liquids that become gas at room temperature)
  • aerosol sprays
  • gases
  • nitrites (prescription medicines for chest pain)

Inhalants are various products easily bought and found in the home or workplace—such as spray paints, markers, glues, and cleaning fluids. They contain dangerous substances that have psychoactive (mind-altering) properties when inhaled. People don’t typically think of these products as drugs because they’re not intended for getting “high,” but some people use them for that purpose. When these substances are used for getting high, they are called inhalants. Inhalants are mostly used by young kids and teens and are the only class of substance used more by younger than by older teens.

How do people use inhalants?

People who use inhalants breathe them in through the mouth (huffing) or nose in various ways:

  • sniffing or snorting fumes from a container or dispenser (such as a glue bottle or a marking pen)
  • spraying aerosols (such as computer cleaning dusters) directly into the nose or mouth
  • “huffing” from a chemical-soaked rag in the mouth
  • sniffing or inhaling fumes from chemicals sprayed or put inside a plastic or paper bag (bagging)
  • inhaling from balloons filled with nitrous oxide, often called laughing gas 

Although the high that inhalants produce usually lasts just a few minutes, people often try to make it last by continuing to inhale again and again over several hours.

How do inhalants affect the brain?

Most inhalants affect the central nervous system and slow down brain activity. Short-term effects are similar to alcohol and include:

  • slurred or distorted speech
  • lack of coordination (control of body movement)
  • euphoria (feeling “high”)
  • dizziness

People may also feel light-headed or have hallucinations (images/sensations that seem real but aren’t) or delusions (false beliefs). With repeated inhalations, many people feel less self-conscious and less in control. Some may start vomiting, feel drowsy for several hours, or have a headache that lasts a while.

Unlike other types of inhalants, nitrites, which are often prescribed to treat chest pain, are misused in order to improve sexual pleasure by expanding and relaxing blood vessels.

What are the other health effects of inhalants?

Long-term effects of inhalant use may include:

  • liver and kidney damage
  • hearing loss
  • bone marrow damage
  • loss of coordination and limb spasms (from nerve damage)
  • delayed behavioral development (from brain problems)
  • brain damage (from cut-off oxygen flow to the brain)

Can a person overdose on inhalants?

Yes, a person can overdose on inhalants. An overdose occurs when a person uses too much of a drug and has a toxic reaction that results in serious, harmful symptoms or death.

These symptoms can cause seizures and coma. They can even be deadly. Many solvents and aerosol sprays are highly concentrated, meaning they contain a large amount of chemicals with a lot of active ingredients. Sniffing these products can cause the heart to stop within minutes. This condition, known as sudden sniffing death, can happen to an otherwise healthy young person the first time he or she uses an inhalant. Using inhalants with a paper or plastic bag or in a closed area may cause death from suffocation (being unable to breathe).