Inhalants are products commonly found around the home that are used to get high. Common inhalants include spray paint, glues and various cleaners. Though many different types of drugs can be inhaled, inhalants are specifically those drugs which are not consumed by any other method and are used in ways other than those intended by the manufacturer. In the United States alone, almost 23 million people have experimented with inhalants at least once. In a survey of middle and high school students conducted between 2002 and 2006, 593,000 students admitted to using inhalants in the year preceding the survey.

How Inhalants are Used

Inhalants can be administered in different ways, but are always delivered to the body through the nose or mouth. This is known as “huffing.” A user can inhale fumes directly, as from a glue container. They can spray an inhalant directly into the nose or mouth, as from a spray can of some sort. Computer keyboard cleaners are typically abused in this way. Chemicals can also be placed in a bag or balloon and administered that way. Some people who use inhalants even go so far as to place the chemical directly in their mouth.

The high from an inhalant typically lasts only a few minutes. This leads a user to repeatedly huff the inhalant in an attempt to maintain the high they experience. This high includes a feeling similar to that which is experienced when consuming alcohol. A person’s reflexes are dulled, their speech may slur and their coordination will be impaired. Someone using inhalants could experience a brief sensation of euphoria that would quickly wear off.

Types of Inhalants

There are certain types of inhalants, called nitrites, which are taken to heighten sexual experiences. They are used legitimately in specific medical procedures, but are abused as an inhalant. Dealers who are promoting nitrites will often label them as something innocent, such as “leather cleaner,” to avoid detection. Use of nitrites as inhalants has been linked to unsafe sexual practices, with an accompanying rise in STDs.

Common Sources of Inhalants

Inhalants come in many different forms. Most household products, clearly marked as dangerous to inhale or to use in an enclosed space, can be abused as inhalants. Some more examples of inhalants are as follows: gasoline, hair spray, correction fluids, butane lighters and whipped cream aerosol dispensers.

This last one, whipped cream aerosol dispensers, is also known as “whippets.” They are abused most commonly by the 16 – 17 year-old age group. In general, inhalants are primarily used by young people. However, adults use them too (mostly the nitrites for increased sexual pleasure and performance.) Users in the 12-15 year old age group are less likely to abuse “whippets” and more likely to huff things like glue or lighter fluid. As an inhalant abuser ages, their inhalant of choice tends to change.

The Unintended Consequences of Inhalant Use

The side effects of inhalants are numerous and quite dangerous in some cases. Someone on inhalants will get light-headed and dizzy, making them prone to accidents. Injuries from falls are a danger quite in addition to the dangers of the effects of the inhalant itself. The environment of someone huffing an inhalant will contain dangers that someone who was not under the influence would not be prone to. For example, if someone inhales near a pool or other body of water, they could easily be in danger of drowning.

Inhalant Side Effects

Other side effects of inhalants include hallucinations and delusions. Someone experiencing one of these effects could easily pose a real threat to themselves or others as they respond to stimuli that are only in their mind.

The chemicals in inhalants vary widely, producing many different harmful effects upon the human body. They can cause nausea and vomiting, liver or kidney damage, hearing loss and even unconsciousness. A user can huff, go unconscious, fall and hit their head, and do serious damage.

Inhalants cause nerve damage and even brain damage. They destroy something called myelin, which encloses a nerve and helps transmit messages. Someone with impaired myelin will experience muscle spasms and an inability to control their movements. Inhalants cause brain damage by cutting off the supply of oxygen. The damage can be irreversible.

Sudden Sniffing Death

There is also something known as “sudden sniffing death.” This is exactly what it sounds like. Someone using inhalants can suddenly drop dead. This can be on the 12th time using an inhalant. It can also be on the first. Someone who is otherwise healthy can decide to experiment “just once” and wind up dead. In fact, 22% of inhalant deaths occurred after a person’s first use. The National Inhalant Prevention Coalition reports that between one hundred and one hundred twenty-five deaths occur each year. However, it is likely that this number is under-reported because people often do not recognize the indications of an inhalant-induced death.

Inhalant Withdrawal

Withdrawal from inhalants is painful and is often accompanied by hallucinations, nausea, headaches, muscle cramps, and other undesirable effects. There are not many treatment facilities available for abusers of inhalants. Full withdrawal requires an extensive detoxification (thirty days or more.)

The long-term effects of inhalant use can be devastating. They can range from short-term memory loss to bone marrow damage and even irreversible brain damage. If a pregnant woman huffs inhalants she can cause physical and mental harm to her unborn baby, not unlike that of fetal alcohol syndrome.

All of these effects are the result of using a drug that produces a high lasting only a few minutes. Since inhalants are used primarily by middle and high school aged children, inhalants can destroy most of what could potentially be a happy, healthy life.

So why are inhalants used? One reason is that they are cheaper than other drugs. Another is that, because they are actually just household products with other intended uses, inhalants are legal to purchase. The government cannot ban all paints, glues, etc. just because some people risk their lives by choosing to use them in ways the manufacturers did not intend.

What Can Be Done About Inhalant Abuse

So what is the solution? There are many actions that can be taken to eliminate inhalant abuse. Since the 10-15-year-old age group has been statistically proven to be most prone to this particular type of drug abuse, early education in the dangers of inhalants would be an obvious first step. Parents should educate their children about the dangers inherent in inhaling chemicals. Schools should provide effective education campaigns. Peer leadership can be crucial. Finding young people willing to tell their stories of abuse to spread the word about the dangers of inhalants far outweighing the “benefits” would certainly help. Parents can also keep a close eye out for any indication that their child may be experimenting with inhalants. Such indications could include unexplained paint or chemical stains on clothing, a chemical smell on their child’s breath, the appearance of intoxication with no alcohol present, or unaccounted-for chemical products, just to name a few. If inhalant abuse is suspected, all potential inhalants should be locked away, thereby restricting access. The child should then be fully educated in the risks involved in abusing inhalants.

Inhalants pose a very real threat to youth and adults alike. With effective education in all aspects of inhalant abuse, their use can be eliminated and lives can be saved.


By Robert O. Newman II, ICDAC, ICPS, CIP