Inhalants

Brief Description

ico-01Many products readily found in the home or workplace—such as spray paints, markers, glues, and cleaning fluids—contain volatile substances that have psychoactive (mind-altering) properties when inhaled. People do not typically think of these products as drugs because they were never intended for that purpose. However, these products are sometimes abused in that way. They are especially (but not exclusively) abused by young children and adolescents, and are the only class of substance abused more by younger than by older teens.

Abusers of inhalants breathe them in through the nose or mouth in a variety of ways (known as “huffing”). They may sniff or snort fumes from a container or dispenser (such as a glue bottle or a marking pen), spray aerosols (such as computer cleaning dusters) directly into their nose or mouth, or place a chemical-soaked rag in their mouth. Abusers may also inhale fumes from a balloon or a plastic or paper bag. Although the high produced by inhalants usually lasts just a few minutes, abusers often try to prolong it by continuing to inhale repeatedly over several hours.

People tend to abuse different inhalant products at different ages. New users ages 12–15 most commonly abuse glue, shoe polish, spray paints, gasoline, and lighter fluid. New users ages 16–17 most commonly abuse nitrous oxide or “whippets.” Adults most commonly abuse a class of inhalants known as nitrites (such as amyl nitrites or “poppers”).

Most abused inhalants other than nitrites depress the central nervous system in a manner not unlike alcohol. The effects are similar—including slurred speech, lack of coordination, euphoria, and dizziness. Inhalant abusers may also experience light-headedness, hallucinations, and delusions. With repeated inhalations, many users feel less inhibited and less in control. Some may feel drowsy for several hours and experience a lingering headache.

Unlike other types of inhalants, nitrites enhance sexual pleasure by dilating and relaxing blood vessels.

Although it is not very common, addiction to inhalants can occur with repeated abuse.

The chemicals found in solvents, aerosol sprays, and gases can produce a variety of additional effects during or shortly after use. These effects are related to inhalant intoxication and may include belligerence, apathy, impaired judgment, and impaired functioning in work or social situations; nausea and vomiting are other common side effects. Exposure to high doses can cause confusion and delirium. In addition, inhalant abusers may experience dizziness, drowsiness, slurred speech, lethargy, depressed reflexes, general muscle weakness, and stupor. For example, research shows that toluene can produce headache, euphoria, giddy feelings, and the inability to coordinate movements.

Inhaled nitrites dilate blood vessels, increase heart rate, and produce a sensation of heat and excitement that can last for several minutes. Other effects can include flush, dizziness, and headache.

A strong need to continue using inhalants has been reported by many individuals, particularly those who have abused inhalants for prolonged periods over many days. Compulsive use and a mild withdrawal syndrome can occur with long-term inhalant abuse. A recent survey of 43,000 American adults suggests that inhalant users, on average, initiate use of cigarettes, alcohol, and almost all other drugs at younger ages and display a higher lifetime prevalence of substance use disorders, including abuse of prescription drugs, when compared with substance abusers without a history of inhalant use.

 
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Effects

ico-01Although the chemical substances found in inhalants may produce various pharmacological effects, most inhalants produce a rapid high that resembles alcohol intoxication, with initial excitation followed by drowsiness, disinhibition, lightheadedness, and agitation. If sufficient amounts are inhaled, nearly all solvents and gases produce anesthesia — a loss of sensation — and can lead to unconsciousness.
 

Health Concerns

Chemicals found in different types of inhaled products may produce a variety of other short-term effects, such as nausea or vomiting, as well as more serious long-term consequences. These may include liver and kidney damage, hearing loss, or bone marrow damage. Effects may also include loss of coordination and limb spasms due to damage to myelin—a protective sheathing around nerve fibers that helps nerves transmit messages in the brain and peripheral nervous system. Inhalants can also cause brain damage by cutting off oxygen flow to the brain.

Inhalants can even be lethal. Sniffing highly concentrated amounts of the chemicals in solvents or aerosol sprays can directly cause heart failure within minutes. This syndrome, known as “sudden sniffing death,” can result from a single session of inhalant use by an otherwise healthy young person. High concentrations of inhalants may also cause death from suffocation, especially when inhaled from a paper or plastic bag or in a closed area. Even when using aerosols or volatile products for their legitimate purposes like painting or cleaning, it is wise to do so in a well-ventilated room or outdoors.

Nitrites are a special class of inhalants that are abused to enhance sexual pleasure and performance. They can be associated with unsafe sexual practices that increase the risk of contracting and spreading infectious diseases like HIV/AIDS and hepatitis.

 
 
 


Source: NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse)

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