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What Are Inhalants: Abuse of Volatile Gasses and Solvents

Last Updated: January 13, 2022

Authored by Olivier George, Ph.D.

Reviewed by Michael Espelin APRN

Inhalant drugs, also called volatile solvents or aerosols, are volatile substances that vaporize to gaseous fumes at room temperature and are inhaled through the nose or mouth to enter the bloodstream via the lungs to produce psychoactive, or mind-altering effects. These substances can be found as components of innocuous household products such as solvents for glues, cleaning products, and adhesives, as propellants in aerosol paint sprays, hair sprays, and shaving creams, as thinners in paint products and correction fluids, and as fuels in gasoline or propane. Hence, nasal spray abuse and inhalant addiction is a worldwide public health concern, because of their common availability, legality, and inexpensiveness.

What Are Inhalants?

Inhalant drugs are volatile substances that vaporize to gaseous fumes at room temperature and are inhaled through the nose or mouth to enter the bloodstream via a transpulmonary route to produce rapid and short-lived psychoactive, or mind-altering, effects.

There is a vast variety of commercially available substances that are capable of producing volatile vapors that can induce psychoactive effects through an array of poorly understood pharmacologic mechanisms within a variety of brain systems. Inhalant drugs of abuse are currently the least-studied class of psychoactive agents. As a result, different types of inhalants lack a proper pharmacological classification based on the mechanism of action or  their distinctive pattern of abuse and instead are grouped by form, product type, or intended use.

Types of Inhalants

As already mentioned, due to the lack of proper classification, inhalant drugs can be classified based on form, product type, or intended use. This article offers a classification of different examples of inhalants by four major categories.

Volatile Solvents are liquids that vaporize to gaseous fumes at room temperature. They can be found in:

  • Paint thinners
  • Nail polish remover
  • Dry-cleaning fluids
  • Gasoline
  • Lighter fluid
  • Rubber cement
  • Correction fluid
  • Felt-tip marker fluid
  • Glues and adhesives

Aerosols are sprays that contain propellants and solvents. They can be found in:

  • Deodorants
  • Hair spray
  • Spray cooking oil
  • Spray fabric protector

Gasses can be found in both common household and commercial products or in the medical field as volatile anesthetics. These include:

  • Household/Commercial– Butane lighter, Propane tanks, Refrigerants
  • Medical– Chloroform, Halothane, Nitrous Oxide(“Laughing gas”)
  • Nitrites– are a group of inhalant drugs that cause vasodilation and relaxation of smooth muscle and were once upon a time used to treat angina pectoris, a type of ischemic heart disorder. These agents (Isoamyl nitrite, Cyclohexyl nitrite, Isobutyl nitrite) are currently abused as “sexual enhancers” and can be found in Poppers, Video head cleaner, Room odorizer, Leather cleaner, Liquid aroma.

The degree and potency of the psychoactive effect produced by a specific type of inhalant substance will vary. Generally, people addicted to inhalants will abuse any of the aforementioned substances, however, others will go to extensive lengths to obtain a preferential substance.

A woman in the white background.

How Are Inhalants Used?

As their name suggests, these agents are self-administered through the respiratory tract. Inhalant drugs can be breathed in via the nose or the mouth in a variety of ways which includes:

  • Sniffing– chemical vapors directly from open containers
  • Huffing– vapors from rags that have been soaked in a chemical substance then stuffed in the mouth or held against the face
  • Bagging– which references to sniffing or inhaling chemical vapors from substances sprayed or deposited inside paper or plastic bags
  • Inhaling from balloons or special devices called snappers, poppers or whippets that are filled with nitrous oxide
  • Directly spraying aerosols into the nasal or oral cavities
  • Pouring inhalants onto the user’s collar, sleeves, or cuffs and sniffing them over a period of time

Transpulmonary administration of inhaled chemicals allows for rapid systemic absorption and swift distribution to the central nervous system. This allows for intoxicating effects to occur within 5 minutes of inhalation, however, this experience is short-lived, which drives those who are addicted to inhalants to inhale repeatedly over the course of several hours to protract intoxication. Prolonged or repeated inhalant abuse can cause altered mentation and possibly even death, and should be avoided.

Are Inhalants Illegal?

The various examples of inhalants given above are NOT illegal. The United States National Drug Intelligence Center reports that the common household products that are misused as inhalants are legally available for their intended and legitimate use. However, several states have tried to prevent adolescent inhalant abuse by enacting laws banning the selling of commonly used inhalants from being sold to those under the age of 18.

Inhalant Abuse and Addiction Overview

Inhalant addiction and abuse has a great social stigma attached, and has even been termed the forgotten epidemic. Inhalant abuse refers to the intentional inhalation of vapors from commercial products or specific chemical agents to achieve intoxication, and its diagnostic criteria falls under the generic SUD diagnostic criteria outlined in the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Inhalant Abuse Statistics

Determination of accurate statistics regarding inhalant addiction and abuse is difficult due to social stigma, variabilities of survey methods, and various other factors. However, below are offered some important statistics provided by various nation-level surveys:

  • The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) reports that approximately 9% of the United States population ≥12 years old -which is ~22.5 million people- have used an inhalant substance.
  • Monitoring The Future (MTF) survey reported that inhalant use most commonly starts early, with more than half of responders reporting instances of first use before the tenth grade.
  • Monitoring The Future (MTF) survey also suggests that many kids who start using inhalants also drop out of school early.
  • The Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) reported that white and Hispanic students reported 14.4% lifetime use rates, which were approximately twice those of African Americans (8.5%).

Fortunately, organizations such as the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) and U.S. poison control centers have reported decreased rates of inhalant use and incidence of inhalant-related emergency room visits compared to the peak which occurred in the mid-1990s.

A woman holds spray in her hand.

Signs and Symptoms Of Inhalants Abuse And Addiction

When discussing inhalant abuse symptoms and signs  it is important to clarify the tell-tale signs which may alert one to their abuse. Acute inhalant abuse can cause the following symptoms and signs:

Physical Signs And Symptoms Of Inhalant Abuse Can Include:

  • Chemical odor on breath or clothing
  • Paint or chemical stains on clothing or body
  • Spots or sores around the mouth
  • Red eyes, nystagmus, and double vision
  • Stained fingernails

Behavioral Signs And Symptoms Of Inhalant Addiction:

  • Dazed appearance
  • Dizziness or unsteadiness of gait
  • Slurred speech
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety or sleep disturbance

It is important to remember that these are the most common signs and symptoms of  inhalants abuse and addiction. However various other physical and behavioral manifestations can also be present, since long term effects of inhalants may impose threat to different body systems of addicts.

Dangers of Inhalants Misuse

Dangerous consequences of inhalant misuse are mostly related to effects of acute intoxication on the cardiovascular, nervous, and pulmonary systems and to chronic misuse over several years which can cause end-organ damage.

These Inhalant Abuse Symptoms Include:

  • Cardiovascular– Dysrhythmias, Hypoxia-induced heart block, Myocardial fibrosis, Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome with Fatal cardiac arrhythmia.
  • Dermatologic– Burns, Contact dermatitis, Perioral eczema
  • Gastrointestinal– Hepatotoxicity, Nausea, or vomiting
  • Hematologic– Aplastic anemia, Bone marrow suppression, Leukemia
  • Neurologic– Ataxia, Neuronal degeneration, Seizures, Peripheral neuropathy, Sensorimotor polyneuropathy,
  • Neuropsychiatric– Apathy, Dementia, Depression, Insomnia, Memory loss, Poor attention, Psychosis, Risk-taking behavior
  • Pulmonary– Cough, Wheezing, Dyspnea, Asphyxiation, Emphysema, Pneumonitis
  • Genitourinary– Risky sexual activity with links to increased HIV transmission has been associated with Volatile alkyl nitrite misuse.

Furthermore, because inhalants are commonly used alongside other drugs such as alcohol and sedative-hypnotics, they may be even more dangerous and lead to additional health problems not mentioned here.

Inhalants Withdrawal And Symptoms of Termination

Individuals who abruptly discontinue abuse of inhalant substances may experience inhalant withdrawal. Withdrawal refers to the unopposed residual counter-regulatory mechanisms that occur in the setting of abrupt cessation of drug use.

Withdrawal Symptoms Are Characterized By:

  • Nausea, anorexia, and vomiting
  • Anxiety with tremors, sweating, tics, and sleep disturbance
  • Significant changes in mood and affect such as irritability and aggressiveness

These symptoms may be severe, and there is no effective treatment for them other than extra-vigilant and supportive symptomatic care. Thus, users should be warned to not discontinue inhalant use abruptly and to seek medical assistance if they wish to discontinue an inhalant substance they’ve been misusing for a long time.

Are Inhalants Detectable on Drug Tests and How Long Do They Stay in Your System?

No standard drug test can detect inhalant use as most inhalants contain many compounds, and no single assay can test for all of them. Furthermore, inhalants are not assessed on routine urine drug screening. However, if sufficient clinical suspicion exists based on history and S/S, specific urine drug testing can be employed which can detect urinary metabolites of some but not all chronically abused inhalants such as benzene,  toluene, or a similar agent. Additionally, specialized tests can be run on specially collected blood samples, which can analyze the presence of certain compounds present in various inhalants. However, these tests are not routinely available.

Also, there is no standard length of time inhalant substances remain in biological samples such as urine, blood, hair or saliva. This duration depends on the specific agent misused.

Treatment for Inhalant Addiction

Since inhalants are often psychologically addictive before they become physically addictive, counseling is a good place to start for help. The type and duration of counseling will partly depend on the underlying issues which led a person to use inhalants in the first place. Those who caved to peer pressure may find it easier to work through internal issues than someone who began using it as a form of self-medication for a difficult situation or home life.

There Are Three Main Types of Counseling Addicts May Use to Get Clean:

  • Support GroupsSupport groups allow users to interact with and help other addicts, while also learning from a group leader or counselor. Being in a group can help increase accountability.
  • Outpatient Counseling– Users may see a counselor or drug abuse specialist weekly or even several times a week to get to the bottom of their drug use during the outpatient rehabilitation. This is an invaluable tool for avoiding pitfalls and staying on the right track.
  • Inpatient Rehabilitation– This method combines both a support group and counseling methods, but in a facility where users will have constant medical supervision and access to professional assistance.

Before counseling can begin, detoxification must take place. This is the process of getting off the drugs in question. While withdrawal symptoms are usually mild for those coming off inhalants (assuming no other drug addictions are present), the process can be physically uncomfortable. If noticed the inhalants use signs do not hesitate to turn to rehab facilities for assistance.

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Published on: October 1st, 2015

Updated on: January 13th, 2022

About Author

Olivier George, Ph.D.

Olivier George is a medical writer and head manager of the rehab center in California. He spends a lot of time in collecting and analyzing the traditional approaches for substance abuse treatment and assessing their efficiency.

Medically Reviewed by

Michael Espelin APRN

8 years of nursing experience in wide variety of behavioral and addition settings that include adult inpatient and outpatient mental health services with substance use disorders, and geriatric long-term care and hospice care.  He has a particular interest in psychopharmacology, nutritional psychiatry, and alternative treatment options involving particular vitamins, dietary supplements, and administering auricular acupuncture.