KNOW THE FACTS
Also known as: Laughing gas (nitrous oxide), Snappers (amyl nitrite), Poppers (amyl nitrite and butyl nitrite), Whippets (fluorinated hydrocarbons), Bold (nitrites), and Rush (nitrites)
Inhalants are chemicals found in ordinary household or workplace products that people inhale on purpose to get “high.” Because many inhalants can be found around the house, people often don’t realize that inhaling their fumes, even just once, can be very harmful to the brain and body and can lead to death. In fact, the chemicals found in these products can change the way the brain works and cause other problems in the body.
Although different inhalants cause different effects, they generally fall into one of four categories.
Volatile solvents are liquids that become a gas at room temperature. They are found in:
- paint thinner, nail polish remover, degreaser, dry-cleaning fluid, gasoline, and contact cement
- some art or office supplies, such as correction fluid, felt-tip marker fluid, and electronic contact cleaner
Aerosols are sprays that contain propellants and solvents. They include:
- spray paint, hair spray, deodorant spray, vegetable oil sprays, and fabric protector spray
Gases may be in household or commercial products, or used in the medical field to provide pain relief. They are found in:
- butane lighters, propane tanks, whipped cream dispensers, and refrigerant gases
- anesthesia, including ether, chloroform, halothane, and nitrous oxide (commonly called “laughing gas”).
Nitrites are a class of inhalants used mainly to enhance sexual experiences. Organic nitrites include amyl, butyl, and cyclohexyl nitrites and other related compounds. Amyl nitrite was used in the past by doctors to help with chest pain and is sometimes used today to diagnose heart problems. Nitrites are now banned (prohibited by the Consumer Product Safety Commission) but can still be found, sold in small bottles labeled as “video head cleaner,” “room odorizer,” “leather cleaner,” or “liquid aroma.”
People who use inhalants breathe in the fumes through their nose or mouth, usually by:
- “sniffing” or “snorting” fumes from container
- spraying aerosols directly into the nose or mouth
- sniffing or inhaling fumes from substances sprayed or placed into a plastic or paper bag (“bagging”)
- “huffing” from an inhalant-soaked rag stuffed in the mouth
- inhaling from balloons filled with nitrous oxide
The lungs absorb inhaled chemicals into the bloodstream very quickly, sending them throughout the brain and body. Nearly all inhalants (except nitrites) produce a pleasurable effect by slowing down brain activity. Nitrites, in contrast, expand and relax blood vessels.
Within seconds, users feel intoxicated and experience effects similar to those of alcohol, such as slurred speech, lack of coordination, euphoria (a feeling of intense happiness), and dizziness. Some users also experience lightheadedness, hallucinations (seeing things that are not there), and delusions (believing something that is not true). If enough of the chemical is inhaled, nearly all solvents and gases produce anesthesia—a loss of sensation—and can lead to unconsciousness.
The high usually lasts only a few minutes, causing people to continue the high by inhaling repeatedly, which is very dangerous. Repeated use in one session can cause a person to lose consciousness and possibly even die.
With repeated inhaling, many users feel less inhibited and less in control. Some may feel drowsy for several hours and have a headache that lasts a while.
Inhalants often contain more than one chemical. Some chemicals leave the body quickly, but others stay for a long time and get absorbed by fatty tissues in the brain and central nervous system. Over the long term, the chemicals can cause serious problems:
- Damage to nerve fibers. Long-term inhalant use can break down the protective sheath around certain nerve fibers in the brain and elsewhere in the body. This hurts the ability of nerve cells to send messages, which can cause muscle spasms and tremors or even permanent trouble with basic actions like walking, bending, and talking. These effects are similar to what happens to people with the disease multiple sclerosis.
- Damage to brain cells. Inhalants also can damage brain cells by preventing them from getting enough oxygen. The effects of this condition, also known as brain hypoxia, depend on the area of the brain that gets damaged. The hippocampus, for example, is responsible for memory, so someone who repeatedly uses inhalants may be unable to learn new things or may have a hard time carrying on simple conversations. If the cerebral cortex is damaged, it will affect a person's ability to solve complex problems and plan ahead. And, if the cerebellum is affected, it can cause a person to move slowly or be clumsy.
Regular use of inhalants can cause serious harm to vital organs and systems besides the brain. Inhalants can cause:
- heart damage
- liver failure
- muscle weakness
- aplastic anemia—the body produces fewer blood cells
- nerve damage, which can lead to chronic pain
Damage to these organs is not reversible even when the person stops abusing inhalants.
Source: Lipari, R.N. Understanding adolescent inhalant use. The CBHSQ Report: June 13, 2017. Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Rockville, MD.
Bureau of Substance Abuse Services (BSAS)