It is easy to get caught up in worrying about illicit drug abuse and completely overlook the fact that common household objects and products contain dangerous chemicals that are often abused as well. When these volatile chemicals are used for the purpose of altering the mind to achieve a high by inhaling their vapors, they are called inhalants. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that in a survey of Americans, 21.7 million people over the age of 12 admitted to using inhalants at least once in their lifetimes. Many don’t realize that inhaling the fumes of common, commercial, and even medical products can lead to changes in the body and brain that can have devastating results, including death.
Inhalants are different from other illicit drugs in that they are generally not illegal, and they are easy and cheap to obtain. Unlike other drugs, inhalants are primarily inhaled, or breathed in, when abused. While other drugs can also be inhaled, inhalants almost always are.
Inhalants are found in the chemicals produced by many products and typically fall into four main categories:
- Volatile solvents
Aerosols are sprays containing solvents or propellants including spray paint, deodorant spray, vegetable oil spray, hair spray, and fabric protector spray. Liquids that turn into a gas at room temperature are considered volatile solvents and include such products as nail polish remover, glue, gasoline, paint thinner, dry cleaning fluid, felt-tip marker fluid, correction fluid, degreaser, electronic contact cleaner, and cement.
Nitrates are compounds generally abused to enhance sexual experiences. They are prohibited by the Consumer Product Safety commission these days but sometimes can still be found labeled as leather cleaner, room odorizer, liquid aroma, or video head cleaner. Gases are used medically for pain relief as anesthesia in the form of nitrous oxide or laughing gas, chloroform, ether, and halothane, and they are often abused as inhalants. Gases are also found in commercial and household products like whipped cream dispensers, propane tanks, butane lighters, and refrigerant gases.
Some common street names for inhalants are:
- Laughing gas
- Locker room
- Moon gas
- Texas shoe-shine
- Air blast
You probably have more than one of these products under your sink or even on your desk right now.
Who Abuses Inhalants?
Inhalants are abused by a wide range of ages and demographics; however, there does seem to be some correlation between inhalant abuse and poor school performance, low income, and a history of child abuse. Due to ease of access, young children who abuse drugs are likely to start with inhalants as early as age 12. A Monitoring the Future study reported that inhalant abuse was most common between the ages of 12 and 17, peaking at around age 14 or 8th grade, with 68.4 percent of those trying inhalants for the first time being between the ages of 12 and 18.
People in both rural and urban locations are equally likely to be abusers, with Hispanics between 8th and 10th grade being more likely than other cultures. Females are more at risk than males generally. Children are not the only ones experimenting though; adults abuse inhalants as well, and the NSHDA estimates that around 64,000 adults need treatment for inhalant abuse.
Inhalants are breathed in through the nose and mouth by a few different methods such as huffing a rag soaked with the chemical, spraying aerosol directly into the face, snorting fumes from chemical containers, bagging in which chemicals are first placed into a bag and then breathed in, or inhaling nitrous oxide from a balloon. All of these methods involve bringing the chemicals into the lungs and then directly into the bloodstream very rapidly, quickly affecting the brain and other organs. The feeling of being high is almost immediate and very short-lived, causing abusers to often repeat the process, abusing more and more to maintain the desired effect. This is extremely dangerous and can lead to a loss of consciousness and even death. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates as many as 100 to 200 people die a year from “sudden sniffing death,” the syndrome caused when abusing an inhalant causes a loss of consciousness, heart attack, or suffocation, which can be fatal.
Inhalants typically cause feelings of intoxication, slowing down brain activity and creating a feeling much like alcohol intoxication. Abusers tend to get excited initially and then get drowsy, lightheaded, agitated, and less inhibited. They can also experience loss of motor control and, with high doses, a loss of sensation entirely.
Short-term side effects include:
- Nausea or vomiting
- Impaired judgment
- Loss of motor control
- Heart attack or suffocation resulting in sudden death
- Slurred speech
- Muscle weakness
- Irregular heart rate
Nitrates differ from other inhalants in that they increase heart rate, dilate blood vessels, and produce a feeling of excitement and heat. They can also cause dizziness, ruddiness, and headaches.
Long-term effects of inhalants include:
- Damaged brain cells
- Kidney, lung, and liver damage
- Reduced muscle tone
- Loss of sense of smell
- Weakened immune system
- Bone marrow damage
- Red blood cell damage
- Hearing and vision loss
Inhalant abuse changes the chemistry of the brain and can be addictive or even lead to an abuser seeking out other forms of substance abuse. Abusing inhalants can be very dangerous and even trying them one time can be fatal.
Signs of Abuse
Due to the extreme danger of even minimal inhalant abuse, it is important to be aware of the signs of suspected abuse. If you notice rags soaked in chemicals or an abundance of empty spray or solvent cans, or if you find solvents and chemicals hidden in strange places, these may be signs of abuse. Chemical odors on someone’s breath or clothing can also be a sign. Stains from paint or other chemicals are often found on an inhalant abuser’s face, hands, or clothing.
Since inhalant abuse often mimics alcohol intoxication, look for signs such as slurred speech, loss of motor control and coordination, disorientation, nausea, or vomiting. Those abusing inhalants may also lose weight and suffer from a loss of appetite. Some may become irritable, inattentive, depressed, or even have violent outbursts.
If you suspect inhalant abuse in a friend or loved one or you struggle with such abuse yourself, it is important to get help right away.
Early intervention can help prevent long-term brain and organ damage as well as sudden death.
Inhalant abuse is often overlooked and many abusers go untreated. It is important to find a treatment center that understands the specific needs of someone who struggles with inhalant abuse. Here at Michael’s House, our trained professionals seek to match each person with the individualized treatment plan that will best serve them. We strive to treat the whole person and not just their addiction.
Group and individual therapy can help to identify what may trigger episodes of abuse and teach users how to avoid or better cope with these situations. Inhalant abuse can be peer-driven and learning the proper tools to handle peer pressure can be vital to healing and preventing relapse or further substance abuse. Call 760.548.4032 today for more information on how Michael’s House can help you get on the path to wellness today.