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How Inhalants Impact the Body

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Getting high on substances that are ingested through the nose or mouth and absorbed in the lungs is called inhaling, sniffing or huffing. Inhalant abuse is a major problem in American culture, particularly among adolescents. reports several statistics that show the extent of the problem.

Among young people age 12-17 years of age, the statistics are as follows:

  • Over 2.5 million use an inhalant to get high.
  • By the time they reach the eighth grade, one in four has intentionally used a household product to get high.
  • Sniffing and huffing often begins at age 10 or below.
  • By age 12, almost 60% of children know someone who uses inhalants.1

According to the National Institute on Drug Addiction (NIDA), people often use different inhalant products based on their age. Users who are 12-15 years old will abuse common household items such as glue, shoe polish, spray paints, gasoline, and lighter fluid. Users who are 16-17 years old often use nitrous oxide, often called whippets.

Adults typically use inhalants known as nitrites (alkyl nitrites) or poppers.2

How Do People Abuse Inhalants?

People who use inhalants usually sniff or snort fumes from a container or dispenser like a marker or spray aerosols directly into their nose or mouth. Furthermore, they may inhale fumes from a container such as a balloon, plastic bag, or paper bag.

The methods people use to inhale substances are usually readily available in most households and, for the most part, inexpensive to purchase. Inhalants are the fourth-most abused substance after alcohol, marijuana, and tobacco.

Why Do People Use Inhalants?

Inhalant abuse remains popular because of its price and availability. In addition, by themselves, inhalants are often legal to own or purchase, so there is generally no risk of being arrested for possession of them.

Furthermore, many teens and adults choose inhalants as their drug of choice because it is an easy way to get a quick buzz. While the high produced by huffing or sniffing usually lasts just a few minutes, addicted people will try to prolong the euphoria by inhaling repeatedly over several hours. This does lead to lowered oxygen intake and can cause lasting brain damage with each use.

The Short-Term Damage and Dangers of Inhalant Abuse

Inhalants irritate breathing passages and may cause chemical burns in the nose, esophagus, and lungs.

Inhalants impact all parts of the respiratory system in dangerous ways.

In a recent survey, researchers found that the immediate effects that people who inhaled substances included:

  • Over 45 percent of people experienced nasal irritation, congestion, and cold-like symptoms.
  • Almost 39 percent of subjects reported experiencing excessive mucus.
  • Over 32 percent reported an inability to breathe well enough to exercise.
  • Over 22 percent experienced uncomfortable or painful coughing.
  • Roughly 16 percent indicted chest pain.
  • Almost 10 percent reported shortness of breath and an inability to fully breathe in air.3

Other symptoms included wheezing, sneezing, runny nose and increased breath rate. These symptoms could be particularly devastating for people with preexisting respiratory problems such as asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia and sinusitis.

Long-Term Effects of Inhalant Abuse

Besides respiratory difficulties inhalants can cause other problems, including:

  • Lasting damage to the heart, kidneys, liver, bone marrow and other organs.
  • Loss of consciousness or coma.
  • Heart failure and death
  • Suffocation

You read that correctly: Sniffing concentrated amounts of chemicals can cause heart failure within minutes. This phenomenon, known as sudden sniffing death, can occur without warning and from one single session of inhaling or from the nth time an inhalant is abused.

When inhaling from a bag or enclosed area, a person can suffocate from the high concentration of chemicals.3

Signs Someone You Love is Abusing Inhalants

Addiction to inhalants will result in a few common symptoms. While not every person will demonstrate every sign, most people will present at least a few.

According to the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition, common symptoms of inhalant use include the following:

  • Paint or stains on the body or on clothing
  • Sores around the mouth
  • Red or runny eyes
  • Red or runny nose
  • Chemical odor on one’s breath or body
  • Appearance of being drunk, dazed or dizzy
  • Nausea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Anxiety
  • Excitability
  • Irritability4

If you see these signs in you or someone you love, seek professional help immediately. While trying to detox from inhalants, a person may experience some negative side effects that could be painful. Professionals who are experienced at addiction treatment and recovery can provide help so that you or your loved one can detox as comfortably as possible.

Getting Help for Your Inhalant Addiction

If you or someone you love is addicted to inhalants, you are not alone. You can call our toll-free helpline any time at 760.548.4032. You can talk with one of our admissions coordinators about your situation. Together you can decide the best treatment options.

We can even help you determine the treatment center and treatment approach that will be most helpful for you. Inhaling substances can cost your life. It’s too high a price. Call us today, and start on the road of recovery.

Start the Journey Today!


1The Alliance for Consumer Education. How Prevalent is Inhalant Abuse in the United States? 2018.
2NIDA. Inhalants. 16 Feb 2016.
3Halime, .C, Demir, E. Effects of volatile substance abuse on the respiratory system in adolescents. Multidisciplinary Respiratory Medicine. 2011.
4National Inhalant Prevention Coalition. Signs of Inhalant Use. 2018.