If you are not a teenager or involved in any sort of drug sub-culture, the only reference point you have for inhalants might be news of children in third-world countries sniffing glue to escape the drudgery of their lives. Unfortunately, that continues around the world in some of the most impoverished countries where children feel they don’t have any chance at life. But right here, in one of the richest countries in the world, children are using inhalants at a dangerous rate as well.
Motives aside, inhalant abuse and addiction is dangerous, not only because of what it can do to your brain but also because it can come on so swiftly. Understanding what inhalants are, how they affect the body and the signs of addiction can help keep people safe from this deadly habit.
What Is an Inhalant Drug?
Have you ever caught a whiff of gasoline while filling up your tank and felt a little light-headed for a minute? The same thing might have happened when you opened a can of paint thinner or a bottle of nail polish remover. That’s the essence of inhalant drugs. They are substances that give off fumes or vapors you breathe in.
“Inhalant drugs” is a bit of a misnomer because these substances are not really drugs. They are simply household chemicals that are intended for cleaning or various other uses. The fact that they vaporize at room temperature makes them subject to possible inhalation and recreational use. Most labels contain warnings to use only in a well-ventilated area to avoid the accidental inhalation of toxic fumes.
There are also true inhalant drugs like ether, chloroform and halothane, but these are used as anesthetics under strict medical supervision only in hospital settings. They are not prescribed for home use; therefore, access to these drugs by recreational users is extremely rare. Inhalant drug abuse really refers to volatile substances that are available in any drug store, supermarket or variety store.
Most Commonly Abused Inhalants
There are many substances out there that could be inhaled to provide a light-headed or euphoric effect, and as is typical with drug abuse, access is a key component. Anything from a magic marker to an adhesive product can give off vapors that have a psychoactive effect. Substances commonly inhaled for recreational purposes are generally divided into these categories:
- Volatile solvents – Solvents have a hundred and one uses around your home or office. They include liquids that turn into vapor at room temperature, so as soon as you open the bottle, there is a strong odor. Volatile solvents include felt-tip markers, paint thinner, lighter fluid, degreaser, correction fluid and glue.
- Aerosols – Liquids that come in a spray can are usually mixed with a propellant. That is the chemical that makes them spray out of the can when you press the button. Aerosols include hair spray, static guard, spray paint, non-stick cooking spray and almost anything else that comes in a spray can. The product itself is not the inhalant; it is the chemical propellant that causes the high.
- Gases – Found in household and commercial products, gases are easier to hear than see. They tend to make a hissing sound when leaking out of their container. Butane lighters, propane tanks and refrigeration systems contain these harmful gases, as do some canned whipped topping products.
Some known street drugs are sometimes snorted or inhaled, but inhalants are substances that are never ingested by any other means. Inhaling fumes from various substances is derived from ancient religious practices, and people have been experimenting with different inhalants ever since. In the 1940s, inhaling solvents like gasoline became popular. By the 1960s things like paint thinner and shoe polish were part of the inhalant repertoire.
Each decade, more products that contain volatile solvents and other gaseous chemicals become available. Chemical companies discover new cleaning agents, invent more adhesives and market more products in aerosol cans. Today there are many toxic chemicals available for inhalant drug abuse, and inhalants have produced their own drug sub-culture. Street names for popular inhalants include:
- Air blast
- Laughing gas
- Moon gas
- Texas shoe shine
Inhalant Drug Addiction Statistics
Reducing inhalant addiction is difficult because the substances used are not controlled in any way. Since these substances are not marketed for consumption, there are very few rules governing where and how they can be sold. It is up to the public to be aware of the dangers and read the label warnings. Of course, it is never a good idea to use a product for anything other than what the manufacturer intended.
Education is the best way to keep people from experimenting with various substances such as inhalants. Understanding the consequences might be a strong deterrent. Inhalant abuse and addiction may not make the nightly news on a regular basis, but it is a serious problem according to these statistics:
The statistics show that inhalant use is a particular problem for teenagers, a fact that is probably associated with the ease of access. Of all age groups who abuse drugs, the youngest ones are most affected by availability. As a group, they have the smallest disposable income, and age provides a barrier to obtaining even legal substances like tobacco and alcohol.
For curious children, inhalants are easy to stumble upon by accident. School supplies like markers, glue and correction fluid could give a child their first experience with inhalants. They notice the strange odor, take a stronger whiff to investigate and feel some slight reaction. Unfortunately, for kids who decide to pursue additional inhalant experiences, there is little restriction from these substances.
How Do Inhalants Work?
When you breathe in the fumes from chemicals that produce psychoactive vapors, the toxins enter your lungs, your blood stream and go directly to your brain. Unlike drugs that are swallowed and have to pass through your digestive system, inhalants are not exposed to any real filtering system on their way to your brain. There is no way to dilute them or to slow their effects.
Inhalants enter your system very quickly and produce a high similar to alcohol intoxication. At first, there is a euphoric, almost giddy, excitement followed by drowsiness. Inhalants depress your inhibitions, making you more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviors. The high is also accompanied by lightheadedness and agitation.
The side effects of inhalant abuse include:
- Loss of balance
- Slow speech
- Mood changes
Like with many other drugs, the side effects of inhalants become worse with additional use. With inhalants, though, much of the damage can become permanent pretty quickly. It doesn’t take years of inhalant abuse to develop these symptoms:
- Hearing loss
- Brain damage
- Loss of short term memory
- Inability to concentrate
- Muscle spasms
The effects of inhalants only last for a short time, which often compels a person to use more or to seek stronger substances to inhale. An escalation of the abuse can cause the user to pass out and possibly die. The toxins that are breathed in go directly to the lungs and the brain, causing irreparable damage in some cases. These toxins can remain in the body for up to two weeks — long after the high is over.
Inhalants in the Brain
Inhalants reach the brain very quickly after they are inhaled, which is why the high begins almost immediately. This is also one thing that makes inhalants so dangerous — the brain damage begins almost immediately.
Like other drugs that cause a light-headed or euphoric feeling, inhalants interfere with the messaging system of the brain. This is significant since all thoughts and motor functions are controlled in the brain using the chemical messaging system.
Information is carried throughout the body to and from the brain by chemicals called neurotransmitters. The neurotransmitters travel along a highly sophisticated network of physical structures that includes various types of nerves. When drugs are involved, the neurons and receptors that make up this messaging system are altered, changing the messages and causing all sorts of stress on the system.
Hallucinations are created when drugs change the sensory messages to something that’s inaccurate. That’s why someone experiencing hallucinations may see and hear things that are not there. So changes to other sensory messages, those that manage body temperature and heart rate, for instance, could have a devastating effect.
Different inhalants concentrate on different areas of the brain with the same basic result — interference. Brain damage from inhalants is more likely to be permanent than damage from other drugs. The strong solvents used as inhalants are believed to damage the protective coating around brain cells.
Since each area of the brain handles different types of thoughts and functions, damage to specific areas, based on the substance used, can have the following results:
- Cerebral cortex. Killing brain cells in this part of the brain can result in permanent changes to the personality. Memory and higher-level thinking are also controlled in this area. When causing damage to the cerebral cortex, you are risking memory loss and learning disabilities.
- Cerebellum. Movement, posture and balance are coordinated in this area of the brain. Damage to the cerebellum can result in loss of coordination, slurred speech and tremors.
- Ophthalmic nerve. This nerve is completely dedicated to sensory perception for structures in the eye region. It serves the cornea, nasal cavity and skin of the eyelids and eyebrows. Inhalants that damage this nerve can cause an array of sight disorders.
- Peripheral nervous system. Consisting of the nerve endings farthest from the spinal cord, these nerves in the peripheral nervous system carry information between the brain and the extremities of the body. Damage to this system can result in numbness, tingling or total paralysis.
- Acoustic nerve. Managing hearing, balance and head position, the acoustic nerve brings sensory information to the brain. Inhalants can cause severe damage to the acoustic nerve, and one result can be deafness.
The brain is a complex organ that controls everything in the body. It is not a good idea to randomly interfere with its functioning for recreational purposes. Once you inhale a drug, you have no control over where it goes in your brain or what damage it does. Unlike other drugs that are ingested, inhalants cannot be pumped out of your stomach before they hurt your brain. Inhalants go straight to your brain and begin causing damage the minute you sniff them.
What’s Deadly About Inhalant Drug Abuse?
Anything consumed to excess can kill — even water. But inhalants are much more harmful than water and can kill very quickly. It is difficult to measure the amount of vapor entering your system with each inhalation. Some people inhale directly from a container of solvent while others soak a rag in the liquid and inhale from there.
People who abuse inhalants tend to seek an increased dose rather quickly. They may move from taking a couple sniffs to inhaling their substance of choice for an extended time, or they may move to a stronger substance to increase the length of their high. All of this makes it almost impossible to pinpoint the size of the dose being consumed.
Regardless of a person’s specific body chemistry, size and overall health, inhalants can lead to death. Ways inhalants can cause death include:
- Suicide – caused by the depression that is felt when the high is over.
- Suffocation – from a plastic bag that is used to contain the substance or a solvent-soaked rag.
- Cardiac arrest – brought on by the inhalant-induced irregular heartbeat or extreme sensitivity to adrenaline.
- Choking – caused by vomiting while the central nervous system is too depressed to respond quickly.
- Asphyxiation – a lack of oxygen in the body caused by the solvent gases.
Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome, which results when inhalants cause irregular heart rhythms that quickly lead to fatal heart failure, can occur in the very first huffing session of an otherwise young and healthy person. All drugs are dangerous, especially when taken frequently or in large doses. The dangers of inhalants cover a number of areas, though, with the potential to cause death in several ways. One of the best protections against an untimely death is to avoid inhalants completely.
Are Inhalants Addictive?
Inhalants are intriguing to first-time users and even those who are not inclined to abuse drugs. The fumes from a volatile solvent are automatically inhaled by anyone working with that substance. For instance, when you open a bottle of nail polish remover to fix your manicure, you smell the fumes. You don’t have to make an effort to experience an inhalant. You don’t have to shoot it, swallow it or light it up. Exposure just happens.
Most inhalants activate the dopamine system in your brain which regulates your sense of pleasure. So from just opening a nail polish remover bottle, you get a slight pleasure response. It is the pleasure centers of the brain that are most affected by highly-addictive drugs like heroin. There is a natural reflex to seek pleasure, and for some, that first whiff is all it takes to be drawn into a cycle of behavior that is very dangerous.
People who abuse inhalants also develop a physical addiction to the substances. The primary sign of a physical addiction is that when the abuser stops using, they suffer physical symptoms of withdrawal. Inhalant withdrawal symptoms include:
- Excessive sweating
- Muscle cramps
Addiction is a complicated concept that medical professionals are still learning more about. It is safest to assume a substance is addictive unless a doctor tells you otherwise. The substance itself does not have to display addictive properties for you to get addicted to it, either. Sometimes it is just a matter of habit and frequency.
Signs of Inhalant Addiction
Since inhalants are popular among young people and easy to access even by accident, it is important to protect your children with information. When they first discover the funny feeling they get from the smell of a felt tip marker, it’s a good idea to explain the dangers associated with prolonged exposure to smells like that.
If someone you love is experimenting with inhalants, you should be able to see many of these warning signs. Of course, individually, these signs could indicate a number of different conditions, but several together should raise your suspicion about inhalant abuse. If you think someone you love may be addicted to inhalants, there are some indicators to look for, including:
- Persistent runny nose
- Red eyes
- Chemical odor
- Dazed appearance
- Loss of appetite
- Slurred speech
- Sores around the mouth
- Lack of coordination
There are some universal signs of drug addiction that include secretive and antisocial behavior, but inhalant abuse is often accompanied by some very specific and unusual behavior. Anyone displaying these behaviors regularly is likely dealing with an inhalant addiction:
- Possessing several butane lighters and refills
- Sniffing clothing sleeves constantly
- Painting fingernails with magic markers or white out
- Holding a felt tip pen near the nose
- Hiding rags, clothes or empty solvent containers
Addiction is a serious problem that can develop around any substance whether it is considered addictive or not. Someone who is using inhalants for recreational purposes is in danger of serious health risks and even death, regardless of whether they are addicted to them.
When it comes to inhalants, anyone who is using is probably addicted, and overcoming addiction can be very difficult. If you or someone you love is abusing inhalants, contact 12 Keys to get the help you need. Our experienced staff can answer all of your questions about inhalants, addiction and anything else you are concerned about.
We can give you the information you want and the support you need to take that big step toward overcoming addiction. No matter how you or your loved one became involved with inhalants, using them compromises your health in a number of ways. At 12 Keys, we’re here to help you get started and support you through your journey to a happy, healthy, drug-free life. Contact us today.