The Dangers of Inhalant Abuse

inhalant abuseMost parents are justifiably worried about the dangers of alcohol, street drugs and prescription medication abuse, but the most dangerous drugs of all may be in their own kitchens, bathrooms and garages. The term “inhalants” refers to everyday household products that give off mind-altering fumes. Inhalants range from glue and nail polish remover to gasoline and canned aerosol products. Sniffing or “huffing” the fumes can produce a high that’s been compared to the intoxicating effects of alcohol.

Unlike heroin, marijuana, meth and prescription painkillers, inhalants aren’t classified as controlled substances by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). But this doesn’t mean that sniffing glue, gasoline or lighter fluid isn’t just as dangerous as doing street drugs or abusing prescription drugs. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, sniffing these toxic chemicals can result in heart failure, respiratory failure, suffocation, coma and death. Inhalant abuse can affect many of the body’s organs, including:

  • Your heart and lungs
  • Your brain
  • Your liver
  • Your kidneys
  • Your bones
  • Your ears (loss of hearing)

Sudden sniffing death syndrome, which causes heart failure in people who deliberately inhale high concentrations of toxic fumes, has been reported in NY Daily News as a frightening new risk for teens who abuse inhalants. Because teens’ respiratory organs are still developing, their bodies are more susceptible to the lethal effects of inhalants, increasing the risk of permanent physical damage and death. One of the biggest risks of abusing inhalants is the fact that you really don’t know how these toxic chemicals will affect your body or mind.

Inhalant Abuse Statistics

Widely available and less expensive than most other drugs, inhalants are abused by people of all ages. But statistics from poison control centers and national drug use surveys indicate that inhalant abuse is most common among children, teens and young adults. According to the Monitoring the Future survey, which tracks drug use in young Americans, inhalant use is most common in people ages 18 and under:

  • 3.2 percent of survey respondents who reported using inhalants were 18 and younger
  • 1.1 percent were between the ages of 19 and 20
  • 1.2 percent were between the ages of 21 and 22
  • 0.5 percent were between the ages of 25 and 26
  • 0.6 percent were between the ages of 29 and 30

For teens and kids, inhalants are by far the easiest drugs to access. Young people who can’t afford to buy prescription pain medication, speed or alcohol can easily get their hands on airplane glue, lighter fluid or wood varnish. But young people are rarely aware of the serious risks of inhalant abuse, which include tolerance, dependence and addiction. According to data from the U.S. Office of Applied Studies, 48 percent of Americans who went to rehab for inhalant abuse in 2006 were between the ages of 12 and 17.

Commonly Abused Inhalants

teen girlThere is no shortage of intoxicating chemicals on the market with a high abuse potential. According to Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, poison control centers and health care facilities reported the abuse of over 3,400 products between 1993 and 2008. Out of these products, the most frequently abused were paint, gasoline and propellants (pressurized fuel products). The products associated with the greatest number of deaths included:

  • Butane
  • Propane
  • Air fresheners

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that the most commonly abused inhalants vary by age group. Kids between the ages of 12 and 15 are most likely to abuse lighter fluids or gasoline, while nitrous oxide (found in aerosol products like whipped cream) was the most popular inhalant among 16-year-old and 17-year-old teens. But inhalant abuse isn’t limited to these obvious choices. Poison control centers have also reported abuse of the following products:

  • Paint thinners
  • Spray paint
  • Felt-tip pens
  • Cooking sprays
  • Rubber cement
  • Furniture polish
  • Breath spray

These products can be abused by sniffing them directly from the container, “huffing” them from a saturated cloth, or “bagging” the fumes from a plastic bag. Because inhalants are legal products, the prevention and treatment of inhalant abuse are extremely challenging. Parents can reduce the risk of inhalant abuse by monitoring the chemical products in their homes and discarding any unused chemicals. But the most effective way to prevent inhalant abuse is to talk with your kids honestly and openly and to pay attention to any changes in their appearance, behavior or habits.


Short-Term Risks
Long-Term Effects

teen boyAdolescence has always been a time for experimentation, and experimenting with inhalants is no exception. For a lot of teens, the risks of inhalant abuse only add to the allure. But young people may not be aware of the severity of the effects of inhalant abuse. The immediate effects include an alcohol-like high, along with:

  • Loss of motor coordination
  • Impaired judgment
  • Lightheadedness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Slurred speech
  • Visual and auditory hallucinations
  • Delusions
  • Delirium

Many inhalants are central nervous system depressants, which slow down vital functions like your heart rate and breathing. After you first sniff an inhalant, you may feel more relaxed, less inhibited, giddy and euphoric. On the other hand, you might also feel confused, anxious, restless, dizzy or nauseated.

The high of inhalants doesn’t last very long. After one or two minutes, you will probably feel the high wearing off, which may drive you to sniff more of the toxic fumes. Although the pleasurable effects of inhaling chemical fumes are very short, the damage caused by these toxins can last for hours, months or an entire lifetime.

man who abused inhalantsOver time, inhalant abuse can cause permanent damage to your vital organs, delay your physical development and affect your quality of life. Teens who use inhalants may show impaired cognitive function and have trouble with concentration and memory. Their academic performance may decline, and they may stop associating with peers who don’t abuse drugs. The Partnership at Drugfree.org warns that the long-term use of inhalants may also cause:

  • Unwanted weight loss
  • Loss of muscle tissue
  • Weakness
  • Poor coordination
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Permanent brain damage

The addictive potential of inhalants is still unknown, but regular users show a compulsive need to continue abusing these chemicals. If you need to sniff higher concentrations of fumes or abuse inhalants more frequently to get the high you’re looking for, you may have developed a tolerance to these drugs. If you continue using inhalants even though you’re aware of their negative effects on your life, you may be addicted.

Signs of Inhalant Abuse

Once you become aware of the prevalence of inhalant abuse, you can learn to recognize the signs and symptoms of this dangerous phenomenon. The Student Services Department of Dakota State University lists some of the most common signs of inhalant abuse:

  • A frequent runny nose
  • Reddened eyes
  • Glassy eyes
  • Speech that doesn’t make sense
  • Sweating
  • Inappropriate laughter

Plastic bags, rags, and empty containers or aerosol cans may be signs of inhalant abuse. Teens who are abusing these products may have a chemical odor to their breath or clothing. Because inhalants harm the mucous linings of the nose and throat, people who inhale these chemicals may have frequent sore throats, inner ear infections or colds. You may also notice changes in their mood. Inhalant abuse can cause apathy, fatigue, depression or self-isolation.

If you or someone close to you is abusing inhalants, it’s imperative to get help. Just because these products are sold legally and used for legitimate purposes doesn’t mean they’re any less deadly. The sooner you get help, the more likely you are to save a life.

Getting Treatment for Inhalant Abuse

As the public becomes more aware of the dangers of inhalant use, they’ve also become aware of the need for specialized treatment for this problem. At Axis, we understand the potential for abuse in these ordinary household chemicals. Our treatment programs draw from a wide range of recovery resources to help our clients heal. Talk with our intake counselors to find out how our rehabilitation services can help you and your loved ones start this process today.

Further Reading