Inhalants are breathable chemical vapors that produce psychoactive (mind-altering) effects. A variety of products common in the home and in the workplace contain substances that can be inhaled. Many people do not think of these products, such as spray paints, glues, and cleaning fluids, as drugs because they were never meant to be used to achieve an intoxicating effect. Yet, young children and adolescents can easily obtain them and are among those most likely to abuse these extremely toxic substances.

Inhalants fall into the following categories:

  • Volatile Solvents:

    • Industrial or household solvents or solvent-containing products, including paint thinners or removers, degreasers, dry-cleaning fluids, gasoline, and glue

    • Art or office supply solvents, including correction fluids, felt-tip-marker fluid, and electronic contact cleaners

  • Aerosols:

    • Household aerosol propellants and associated solvents in items such as spray paints, hair or deodorant sprays, fabric protector sprays, aerosol computer cleaning products, and vegetable oil sprays

  • Gases:

    • Gases used in household or commercial products, including butane lighters and propane tanks, whipping cream aerosols or dispensers (whippets), and refrigerant gases

    • Medical anesthetic gases, such as ether, chloroform, halothane, and nitrous oxide (“laughing gas”)

  • Nitrites:

    • Organic nitrites are volatiles that include cyclohexyl, butyl, and amyl nitrites, commonly known as “poppers.” Amyl nitrite is still used in certain diagnostic medical procedures. Volatile nitrites are often sold in small brown bottles labeled as “video head cleaner,” “room odorizer,” “leather cleaner,” or “liquid aroma.”

Health Hazzards

Although they differ in makeup, nearly all abused inhalants produce short-term effects similar to anesthetics, which act to slow down the body’s functions. When inhaled in sufficient concentrations, inhalants can cause intoxication, usually lasting only a few minutes. If use continues, users can lose consciousness

Sniffing highly concentrated amounts of the chemicals in solvents or aerosol sprays can directly induce heart failure and death within minutes of a session of repeated inhalations. This syndrome, known as “sudden sniffing death,” can result from a single session of inhalant use by an otherwise healthy young person. Sudden sniffing death is particularly associated with the abuse of butane, propane, and chemicals in aerosols.

High concentrations of inhalants also can cause death from suffocation by displacing oxygen in the lungs and then in the central nervous system so that breathing ceases.

Chronic abuse of solvents can cause severe, long-term damage to the brain, the liver, and the kidneys. Harmful irreversible effects that may be caused by abuse of specific solvents include:

  • Hearing loss-toluene (spray paints, glues, dewaxers) and trichloroethylene (dry-cleaning chemicals, correction fluids)

  • Peripheral neuropathies, or limb spasms-hexane (glues, gasoline) and nitrous oxide (whipped cream dispensers, gas cylinders)

  • Central nervous system or brain damage-toluene (spray paints, glues, dewaxers)

  • Bone marrow damage-benzene (gasoline)

Serious but potentially reversible effects include:

  • Liver and kidney damage-toluene-containing substances and chlorinated hydrocarbons (correction fluids, dry-cleaning fluids)

  • Blood oxygen depletion-aliphatic nitrites (known on the street as poppers, bold, and rush) and methylene chloride (varnish removers, paint thinners)

Be aware of the following signs of an inhalant abuse problem:

  • Chemical odors on breath or clothing

  • Paint or other stains on face, hands, or clothes

  • Hidden empty spray paint or solvent containers and chemical-soaked rags or clothing

  • Drunk or disoriented appearance

  • Slurred speech

  • Nausea or loss of appetite

  • Inattentiveness, lack of coordination, irritability, and depression

  • Missing household items

If you think you, or someone you care about, may have a problem with inhalants, we encourage you to contact us. All correspondence is caring, confidential, and respectful. Remember, there is hope for a substance free future.