What are inhalants?

Inhalants are substances whose vapors can be inhaled to produce a mind-altering effect. Inhalants can be categorized as:

  • Volatile solvents, such as paint thinners, degreasers, and glues;
  • Aerosols, such as hair sprays and vegetable oil sprays for cooking;
  • Gases, including ether, nitrous oxide, and propane; and
  • Nitrites, including cyclohexyl nitrite, amyl nitrite, and butyl nitrite.

Inhalants as a class of drugs share one main characteristic: they are rarely, if ever, taken by any route other than inhalation.

Who abuses inhalants?

Inhalants are often among the first drugs that young children use. About 6 percent of children in the United States have tried inhalants by the time they reach fourth grade. In 1999, NIDA's Monitoring the Future survey showed that 19.7 percent of 8th-graders, 17 percent of 10th-graders, and 15.4 percent of 12th-graders said they had abused inhalants at least once.

How do people use inhalants?

Inhalant abusers can sniff or snort fumes from containers, spray aerosols directly into the nose or mouth, “huff” fumes from an inhalant-soaked rag stuffed into the mouth, sniff fumes from substances sprayed into a paper or plastic bag, or inhale from balloons filled with nitrous oxide. The quick high from inhalants lasts only a few minutes, so abusers often inhale repeatedly over several hours—a practice that can cause unconsciousness and even death.

Early recognition of inhalant abuse is important for parents and physicians. Signs include chemical odors on the breath or clothes, paint or other stains on skin or clothes, slurred speech and drunk or disoriented appearance, nausea or lack of appetite, and inattentiveness and lack of coordination.

What are the short-term effects of inhalant abuse?

Inhaled chemicals travel rapidly from the lungs through the blood to the brain and other organs. In minutes, the user feels alcohol-like effects such as slurred speech, clumsy movements, dizziness, and euphoria. Other effects might include lightheadedness, hallucinations, delusions, and, after heavy use of inhalants, drowsiness and a lingering headache. Inhaled nitrites dilate blood vessels, increase heart rate, and produce a sensation of heat and excitement.

What are the medical consequences of inhalant abuse?

The most serious hazard for inhalant abusers is a syndrome called “sudden sniffing death.” A single, prolonged session of inhalant use can produce rapid and irregular heart rhythms, heart failure, and death. It can happen within minutes and can strike an otherwise healthy young person. But inhalant abuse can cause death in other ways, too—asphyxiation, suffocation, or choking.

Chronic exposure to inhalants causes widespread and long-lasting damage to the nervous system and other vital organs. The toxic chemicals damage parts of the brain that control learning, movement, vision, and hearing. Damage to the heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys may be permanent.

What about HIV/AIDS?

An added risk for people who abuse nitrites, mainly older adolescents and adults, arises from the reason they use the drug: to enhance sexual pleasure. Thus, use of nitrites is associated with unsafe sexual practices that increase the risk of contracting or transmitting infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis.

More Information

Copies of the eight-page research report “Inhalant Abuse” may be ordered from the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information at 1-800-729-6686 or 1-800-487-4889 for the deaf.