Although many parents are appropriately concerned about illicit drugs such as marijuana, meth, and cocaine, they often ignore the dangers posed to young people from common household products that contain volatile solvents or aerosols.
The practice of “sniffing glue” has been around for generations, but most parents do not even consider that their child would participate in something so obviously dangerous. Unfortunately, many young people do.
Products such as nail polish remover, lighter fluid, electronic device cleaner (dusters), spray paints, air fresheners, hair sprays, canned whipped cream, and cleaning fluids are widely available and easy to obtain. Many young people inhale the vapors from these sources in search of quick intoxication without being aware of the serious health consequences that can result.
Of course, adolescents and teens are not the only ones huffing inhalants. It’s a cheap high for adults who cannot afford the cost of illicit street drugs.
Inhalants are substances, usually found in common household products, that produce chemical vapors that can be inhaled to get high. Inhaling these vapors gives the person a mind-altering effect.
There are many substances that can be inhaled, but when we refer to inhalants, we are referring to a group of substances that are rarely taken by any other method than inhaling them.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, there are four general categories of inhalants which are found in common household, industrial or medical products. They include volatile solvents, aerosols, gases, and nitrites.
Following are details about each category of inhalant:
Liquids that vaporize at room temperature are known as volatile solvents. They are found in the following products:
- Paint thinners and removers
- Dry-cleaning fluids
- Felt-tip markers
- Correction fluids
Aerosols are chemical sprays that contain either propellants or solvents or both. They include:
- Dusters (PC cleaners)
- Spray paint
- Fabric protector sprays
- Deodorants and air fresheners
- Hair sprays
- Cooking sprays
Gases that can be abused as inhalants include medical anesthetics and gases found in common household or commercial products. Some of these include:
- Nitrous oxide (laughing gas)
- Butane lighters
- Propane tanks
The above three categories of inhalants act on the central nervous system and give the user a psychoactive effect, either mind-altering or mood-altering or both. Nitrites, on the other hand, affect the body differently.
Nitrites work mainly by dilating blood vessels and relaxing muscles. They are abused primarily as sexual enhancers and are therefore considered in a different class of inhalants.
Known as poppers or snappers, nitrite inhalants include:
- Cyclohexyl nitrite
- Isoamyl (amyl) nitrite
- Isobutyl (butyl) nitrite
Once prescribed for heart pain, nitrites are now prohibited by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. They can still be found on the market, however, sold as products labeled: “video head cleaner,” “room odorizer,” “leather cleaner,” or “liquid aroma.”
What Are the Patterns of Inhalant Abuse?
Because of their availability in common household products, inhalants can be one of the first drugs young people use. Although inhalants began as an adolescent/teen drug issue, products like duster and Nitrous Oxide have become very popular with individuals over the age of 18 years old.
Peaks in the 8th Grade
Data from NIDA-funded surveys indicate the following patterns of inhalant abuse:
- The American Drug and Alcohol Survey of students in the 4th through 12th grades indicates that inhalant abuse peaks in the 8th grade.
- The Monitoring the Future study of 8th-, 10th, and 12th-graders shows a higher rate of inhalant abuse for 8th graders than students in the higher grades.
Girls Abuse Inhalants, Too
Other research shows patterns of gender differences in the use of inhalants. Boys are more likely to abuse inhalants in grades 4 through 6 and also grades 10 through 12, but boys and girls in grades 7 through 9 have similar rates of inhalant abuse.
The National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (NHSDA) also indicated similar rates of inhalant abuse for boys and girls in the 12-17 age group, but for the 18-25 age group, the rate of inhalant abuse for males was twice that of females.
Inhalant abuse is found in both urban and rural youth and socioeconomic conditions seem to be more significant contributing factors to inhalant abuse than racial or cultural factors, the NIDA reports.
Compared to most illicit drugs, inhalants are abused by a very small percentage of the population when compared to illicit drugs.
In 2010, there were an estimated 793,000 new users of inhalants in the past 12 months among people over age of 12 years. Of those first-time users, more than two-thirds (68.4%) were under the age of 18, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). This survey does involve students in schools in the U.S. This does not address the general public population in the country.
Inhalants are breathed in through the nose or mouth and are rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream through the lungs causing an almost instant high.
Some of the ways that inhalants are used include:
Sniffing or snorting vapors from inhalant containers.
Spraying aerosols directly into the nose or mouth.
Bagging is the practice of inhaling fumes from chemicals sprayed or placed in a plastic or paper bag.
Huffing from a rag soaked in inhalants and held to the face or stuffed into the mouth.
Inhaling from balloons filled with helium or nitrous oxide.
Short Terms Effects Can Be Dangerous Too
Regardless of which of the above methods are used, inhalants produce intoxicating effects within seconds of inhalation. Users can experience slurred speech, uncoordinated movements, euphoria, dizziness, lightheadedness, hallucinations, and delusions.
One of the dangers of inhalant abuse lies in the fact that the high lasts for only a few minutes, prompting users to inhale over and over to try to maintain the feeling. If repeated too often, inhaling can cause a loss of consciousness and possibly death.
Inhalant users report feeling less inhibited and less in control. Heavy users may black out, have seizures, exhibit involuntary eye movement, vomit, and have headaches.
Scientists believe that most inhalants affect many different systems of the brain to produce their anesthetic, intoxicating and reinforcing effects.
Depending on the chemical being inhaled, the effects can vary widely—some act as stimulants, while others act as depressants.
When some chemicals are inhaled, the can initially act like stimulants, but as the effects wear off, the user’s senses can become depressed.
Most inhalants produce a pleasurable effect by depressing the user’s central nervous system. The exception is nitrites, which dilate and relax blood vessels instead of acting as an anesthetic agent.
Effects Only Last a Few Minutes
The “high” inhalant users achieve is short-lived, usually only lasting a few minutes. This short-lived high will cause the user to inhale repeatedly.
Repeated users can become aggressive or begin to hallucinate. They can pass out or even die sue to cardiac arrhythmia.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, research with animals indicate that many inhalants have similar neurobehavioral effects and mechanisms of action to other substances that depressed the central nervous system, including alcohol, sedatives, and anesthetics.
One animal study showed that toluene, an ingredient in many inhalants of abuse, activates the dopamine system in the brain in similar ways to nearly all other drugs of abuse.
Inhalant use can produce a variety of effects on the user that begin within seconds after the substance is breathed into the lungs.
Initially, the effects of solvent and gas inhalants can mimic alcohol intoxication and excitation which is soon followed by drowsiness, lightheadedness, disinhibition, and agitation. With the inhalation of increased amounts of these type inhalants, they can produce anesthesia and lead to unconsciousness.
Depending on the kind of solvent or gas, inhalants can produce additional effects, which can include:
- Impaired functioning
- Impaired judgment
- Nausea and vomiting
- Slurred speech
- Depressed reflexes
- Muscle weakness
- Inability to coordinate movements
High dosages of inhalants can result in confusion or delirium.
Effects of Nitrites
Unlike solvents and gases, nitrites act by dilating blood vessels and relaxing the smooth muscle in the vessels. Short-term effects of nitrites include:
- Sensation of heat
- Flush feeling
Long-Term Effects of Inhalants
Depending on the chemical being inhaled, inhalants can produce many different long-term harmful effects. Regular inhalant abuse can result in harm to the body’s vital organs. Some of these effects are potentially reversible – including liver and kidney damage.
But some long-term effects of inhalant abuse are irreversible, including brain damage, central nervous system damage, hearing loss, limb spasms, and bone marrow damage.
Developing a Tolerance to Inhalants
After prolonged use of inhalants, abusers report a strong need to continue using them. Some users develop a tolerance and must increase the amount they use to achieve the same effects. With long-term abuse, users can develop a compulsive use of inhalants and can experience mild withdrawal syndrome.
Because there are so many different substances that are abused as inhalants, users can risk a long list of serious medical consequences. The abuse of some inhalants can result in sudden death even after one inhaling session.
“Sudden sniffing death” can occur to otherwise healthy young users by inducing irregular and rapid heart rhythms which can lead to cardiac arrest. This can happen within minutes of a single prolonged sniffing session, according to National Institute on Drug Abuse research.
An estimated 350-500 deaths are inhalant related in the U.S. each year. Many are undocumented.
Other Deadly Risks
There are other ways that inhalant abuse can be fatal, including:
- Asphyxiation: Inhaled fumes can concentrate in the lungs, displacing needed oxygen.
- Suffocation: This can occur when the user is inhaling from a plastic bag placed over the head.
- Convulsions or Seizures: Inhalants can produce abnormal electrical discharges in the brain.
- Coma: Sniffing can cause the brain to shut down almost all of its functions.
- Choking: Abusers have died from inhaling their own vomit after sniffing.
- Fatal Injury: Intoxication from inhalants can cause fatal accidents.
Most Inhalants Are Toxic
NIDA research shows that most substances used as inhalants are very toxic and chronic exposure to them can result in damage to the brain and nervous system. Two such substances can cause damage to nerve fibers in the brain and peripheral nervous system.
Prolonged inhalant abuse can damage regions of the brain that control cognition, movement, vision, and hearing. Chronic users can experience cognitive abnormalities that range from mild impairment to severe dementia, according to the NIDA.
The brain is not the only organ that can be damaged. Inhalants have been found highly toxic to the heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys. Although some of this damage is at least partially reversible, if the users stop abusing inhalants, some effects are irreversible.
Early on, girls were found to be more likely to use inhalants than boys from age of 12 and 17 years. This information came from 2005 data. Currently, the use of inhalants by females and males is very similar for those in their late teens continuing into their 30s. The use of products like dusters tends to be used more by males in their mid 20s at the current time.
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