What Are Inhalants?
The term “inhalants” is applied to a wide range of volatile substances that produce a chemical vapor which, when inhaled, has a mind-altering effect. People inhale the vapor to get high and rarely if ever ingest these substances to produce a high in any other way. The chemicals contained in commonly abused inhalants include acetone, butane, propane, fluorocarbons, ethyl chloride and nitrous oxide.
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The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) classifies inhalants into four types:
Volatile Solvents include liquids which vaporize at room temperature. Gasoline, paint thinners and cleaning fluids fall into this category, along with many other commonly used products.
Aerosols are spray or foam products in pressurized containers. This group includes products as varied as air fresheners, spray deodorant and computer cleaner.
Gases include those used for medical purposes, such as chloroform and nitrous oxide (laughing gas) and household products such as whipped cream, butane lighters and refrigerants.
Nitrates are in a class by themselves because they act on the body in a different way, by dilating blood vessels and relaxing muscles. Known by the street names like ‘snappers’ and ‘poppers’, nitrates are primarily used by older teens and adults as sexual enhancers and, although banned by the Consumer Products Safety Commission, are still sold in small bottles labeled as “video head cleaner”, “room deodorizer”, and other misleading labels.
There are hundreds of these products readily available for over-the-counter purchase. Inhalants are found in common household products, which is a big reason that minor children account for the largest percentage of inhalant abusers. Deadly inhalants which can be abused to get high are almost certainly found in every single household in the nation.
The following products are among the most readily available and abused:Nail polish removerDeodorant aerosol sprayGasolineCleaning solutionsSpray paintGlue (especially model glue)Cooking sprayWhipped creamSpray cleaning fluidsCorrection fluidFreon (in freezers and air conditioning units)
How Are Inhalants Used/Ingested?
Also called “huffing”, inhalants are a popular and extremely dangerous way for many minors to get high. Inhalant abuse usually occurs by inhaling the fumes from the substances. Sometimes the inhalant abuser will spray the inhalant into a rag or bag that is placed in front of his or her nose or mouth. Sometimes users will inhale directly from the inhalant’s container. Nitrous oxide, commonly known as “laughing gas” is usually inhaled from balloons.
The mind-altering effect from inhalants only lasts a few minutes. Because the high is short-lived, users commonly inhale the fumes repeatedly, using the toxin again and again once the effect wears off. This repeated use can result in unconsciousness or death.
How Do Inhalants Affect the User?
Most abused inhalants (excluding nitrates) depress the central nervous system. Studies indicate they may have similar depressant and sedative effects as alcohol and sedatives. Animal studies indicate they may activate the brain’s dopamine pathways, which serve as a reward incentive to repeat a behavior.
Inhalants produce a high similar to alcohol, with excitation followed by loss of inhibition, drowsiness, and agitation. Like alcohol, the loss of inhibition can lead to behaviors such as violence. A large amount inhaled can lead to anesthesia and unconsciousness.
Other effects can include apathy, antagonistic behavior and/or impaired judgment, inability to function in social situations, drooling, nausea, vomiting, confusion and delirium. One of the effects of continuous inhalant abuse is a need to continue using, or physiological and psychological addiction to inhalants. Long-term users often seek out a specific type of inhalant.
What Are the Long-Term Effects and Dangers of Inhalant Use?
Long-term inhalant abusers risk causing serious, permanent damage to their bodies, including brain damage, liver and kidney dysfunction or shut down, memory loss, and seizures. Vision and hearing damage are not uncommon among inhalant users.
Long-term inhalant users tend to suffer from muscle weakness and a lack of coordination. They will lose weight. They may have difficulty concentrating and show signs of depression. Many people who use inhalants end up with irreversible liver or kidney damage. Research shows that chronic exposure to chemicals can lead to widespread and long-lasting damage to the brain and other parts of the nervous system with damage similar to neurological diseases such as multiple sclerosis.
Additionally, people who start out using inhalants frequently go on to abuse other drugs, such as nicotine, alcohol and illegal substances. Studies show that people who abuse inhalants often develop other substance abuse issues at an earlier age, and could have lifelong issues with addiction.
Studies have shown that those who abuse nitrates do so in a social context where other behaviors can put them at risk of contracting an STD such as AIDS or Herpes, or a viral infection such as hepatitis. Inhaling nitrates, even in small amounts, can damage the immune system and leave the user open to other infectious diseases.
What Are the Symptoms of Inhalant Use?
Inhalant abuse leads can lead to many serious, intense short-term effects. A user may slur their speech or have coordination problems. They may have trouble with forming words, or seem generally disoriented and confused. The user may be dizzy, lightheaded, or may feel sick to their stomach.
There is no such thing as safe inhalant use. Every time a person uses inhalants, they are causing brain damage and are in danger of hearing loss, painful nerve damage, and cardiac arrest. The effects of inhalant abuse are usually felt within seconds. The high only lasts a few minutes, during which the user experiences intoxication. They may become dizzy and lose their balance or feel ill. Symptoms such as headaches, abdominal pain, loss of control, hallucinations, and impaired judgment may occur.
Highly concentrated amounts of some inhalants can lead to “sudden sniffing death” – a condition where heart failure and death can occur within minutes of inhaling the chemicals. Sudden sniffing death can occur during a user’s first time abusing an inhalant.
Cause of death from inhalants can be through lack of oxygen in the lungs, convulsions, coma, choking on one’s own vomit or from fatal injury in an accident caused by intoxication, such as falling, walking into traffic while high, or driving while impaired and causing a car or motorcycle accident.
Signs and Symptoms of Inhalant Dependency/Addiction
Some inhalant users will paint their nails with correction fluid or have clothes that smell of paint, nail polish remover, and other chemicals. Some will dip the edge of their shirt in the fluid and sniff it. Users will smell of chemicals and may not even be aware of it. Butane lighters and fluid in the hands of a non-smoker can also be a sign of inhalant abuse. Household cleaners and other products which are missing for no good reason could be a sign that they’re being taken and misused.
Users can become psychologically and physiologically dependent on inhalants. Users who are addicted may be heavily preoccupied and dependent on their favorite product or brand to get high, and are even unwilling to substitute another product. A chronic inhalant abuser will develop a tolerance to their inhalant of choice, requiring greater doses of the inhalant to get high. They may steal their favorite inhalant from the store or stockpile chemicals. Their relationships, schoolwork, and quality of life will begin to suffer.
Many inhalant users who try to stop using have difficulty due to withdrawal effects. Many inhalant users have reported intense cravings.
Withdrawal symptoms to inhalants have been known to include:Hand tremorsNervousnessExcessive sweatingHallucinationsChillsHeadachesAbdominal painMuscular cramps
An individual detoxing from inhalants may require medical supervision to minimize the discomfort of withdrawals. In order to maintain abstinence from the drug, the user should get help, counseling and group therapy, possibly in a 12-step recovery program.
Getting Help for an Inhalant Problem
Many people have successfully stopped using inhalants with the help of a therapeutic program or residential treatment environment. Treatment for inhalant abuse depends upon many factors, including the age and gender of the patient, what other substances they abuse, and the length and severity of the patient’s drug problems.
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