Inhalant Abuse

Inhalant abuse is the misuse of chemicals and vapors, often common household products like cleaning supplies or paint thinner, to get high. The practice of inhaling or huffing the vapors of these products produces euphoria and a drunken-like state. There are also serious consequences for health, including the possibility of dying even after using an inhalant for the first time. Long-term abuse can lead to brain damage, nerve damage, organ damage, and a substance use disorder. Addiction treatment may be necessary to help individuals stop using inhalants.

What Is Inhalant Abuse?


Inhalants are substances that people abuse by inhaling them, or breathing them in deeply. There are many other drugs that can be inhaled, but the term inhalant refers to those substances that are only abused by inhaling, not by any other method. Many inhalants that people abuse are common household items, like gas, aerosol sprays, glues, and cleaning solvents.

None of these products are inherently drugs; they are not illegal substances. But, they can be abused by a person to get high, in which case they are considered drugs in the inhalant category. Because access to inhalants is fairly easy, this is a type of drug favored by young people. To get high from an inhalant, a person sniffs or inhales the vapors, often using something like a paper bag to concentrate them.

Abusing inhalants to get high is risky. It causes poor coordination and dizziness, so accidents that can cause a lot of harm are possible. Inhalants may also cause a sense of euphoria, which is often why people abuse them, but over time they can cause organ damage, hearing loss, brain damage, and nerve damage. In young people inhalant use can even delay brain and behavioral development.

Facts and Statistics


Inhalant abuse is risky, especially for the young people who are most likely to engage in this activity. Not only are there serious health risks, it can lead to inhalant use disorder, a condition listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

  • Over 22 million Americans over the age of 12 have abused an inhalant. More than 750,000 people try an inhalant for the first time every year in the U.S.
  • Inhalants are unique among drug types in that their use is more prevalent in young teens and adolescents and use decreases as teens get older.
  • According to the Monitoring the Future survey from 2017, inhalant abuse among 10th and 12th graders continues to decline, while it increased for 8th graders from 2016.
  • Eighth graders consistently have higher rates of use of inhalants as compared to 10th and 12th graders.
  • The percentage of 8th-grade students who used an inhalant in the last year, as reported in 2017, was about five percent.
  • Common household inhalants abused by young people include nail polish remover, glue, rubber cement, spray paint, shoe polish, gasoline, markers, cleaners, deodorant, lighter fluid, correction fluid, cooking spray, and whipped cream aerosols.

Symptoms and Diagnosis of Inhalant Abuse


Inhalant intoxication causes lack of coordination, slurred speech, nausea, dizziness, and an elevated mood. A person high on inhalants may seem drunk, but there are also some specific signs of inhalant abuse:

  • A chemical smell on clothing or breath
  • Hidden inhalants, rags, paper bags, and similar paraphernalia
  • Paint or chemical stains on skin
  • Loss of appetite
  • A rash around the mouth
  • Low mood, including depression or irritability

Long-term abuse of inhalants can cause serious damage and resulting symptoms. These may include loss of hearing, tremors, loss of control of body movements, loss of vision, labored breathing, anemia or leukemia from damage to bone marrow, and liver damage and hepatitis.

Chronic abuse can even cause a substance use disorder. Addiction and mental health specialists recognize inhalant use disorder, which can be diagnosed using the criteria outlined for other substance use disorders. Those include things like using inhalants more than intended, trying to stop and failing, craving inhalants, using them in spite of problems it causes, avoiding activities and responsibilities to continue using, and experiencing tolerance and withdrawal.

It is possible to overdose on inhalants, which occurs when a person inhales a toxic amount. This can be fatal, causing the heart to stop, seizures, and even coma. The products used as inhalant drugs are often highly concentrated, and users concentrate them further with paper bags. This can make overdosing easy and a serious risk of experimenting with this kind of drug abuse. Called sudden sniffing death, even someone using an inhalant for the first time is at risk of dying immediately as a result of the heart stopping.

Causes and Risk Factors


There are no real causes for inhalant abuse that can be pinpointed, but there are risk factors that lead people to experiment with and abuse drugs, including inhalants. Risk factors for young people, who use inhalants more than other age groups, include having easy access to inhalants, having friends of peers who abuse inhalants, having a mental illness, having a family history of drug abuse, experiencing trauma, and abusing other substances.

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Withdrawal and Detox


The first step in managing inhalant use disorder is to detox, which can trigger withdrawal and a relapse in use. Addiction to inhalants is not as common as other substances, so withdrawal is not as well studied or documented. Some of the symptoms of withdrawing from inhalants that have been reported include sweating, nausea, muscle tics, appetite loss and anorexia, difficulty sleeping, and mood swings.

There is no specific medical treatment for managing withdrawal from inhalants other than supervision and any supportive care that is needed. It is important to only attempt detox when supervised, because the withdrawal symptoms can be very uncomfortable. As with any drug, these symptoms are often what lead a person to relapse.

Co-Occurring Disorders


Inhalant abuse has been found to be associated with abuse of other substances and suicidal thoughts and behaviors, as well as poor social adjustment and low self-esteem. There is also an association between eating disorders and inhalant abuse, in both young women and men. Any type of substance abuse, including inhalant abuse, is often associated with having a mental illness. These two issues commonly co-occur because they have risk factors in common and also because there are complicated causes and effects.

A young person who is struggling with a mental illness, like depression or bipolar disorder, may turn to substances, including inhalants, to try to get relief. This is particularly common in those who have untreated mental illnesses. The abuse of inhalants can also trigger mental health symptoms, make them worse, or contribute to the onset of a mental illness that a person was already predisposed to develop. Because there is such a close relationship between inhalant abuse and mental illnesses, it is crucial to diagnose, treat, and manage any co-occurring disorders a person has.

Treatment and Prognosis


Inhalant abuse, whether or not it can be diagnosed as an inhalant use disorder, is a behavior that is risky and harmful. It has long-term consequences, and for those who find they can’t stop using inhalants, seeking professional treatment is important. As with other types of substance use disorder, inhalant abuse can be treated with behavioral therapies, medical treatment as needed, a holistic approach to treating all of a patient’s needs, and group and family support.

Treatment can be given in a residential setting or in outpatient appointments, but for those who do not have a safe place to stay or a supportive family, residential care is ideal. On the other hand, people who get outpatient treatment can stay home with caring family members and continue to go to school or go to work with less disruption. With either type of treatment, a focus on preventing relapse is crucial. This means learning how to avoid triggers, finding healthy substitutes for coping with stress and other negative emotions, and being treated for any mental illnesses.

Because inhalant abuse is so prevalent in young people it is important to note the significance of prevention. Many young teens, and even preteens, are susceptible to abusing inhalants and are unaware of the serious health risks. Parents and family, schools and educators, and groups and leaders within communities can work together to better educate children. Inhalant use is also associated with larger societal factors that need to be addressed, including poverty, hunger, and low levels of family education.

When someone who struggles to stop abusing inhalants gets support from loved ones along with professional treatment, the prognosis is good. It is possible to work toward sobriety, to learn and use positive coping mechanisms and lifestyle changes, and to return to a normal and healthy way of life without substance abuse.