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Inhalants are volatile substances that produce chemical vapors that can be inhaled to induce psychoactive, or mind-altering, effects. Although other abused substances can be inhaled, the term "inhalants" is used to describe a variety of substances whose main common characteristic is that they are rarely, if ever, taken by any route other than inhalation. Many young people breathe the vapors from these products hoping for a quick high, unaware of the serious health consequences of their actions.
Volatile solvents are liquids that vaporize at room temperature. They are found in:
Gases include household or commercial products such as:
Aerosols are sprays that contain propellants and solvents. Some common aerosols include:
Nitrites are a special class of inhalants. While other inhalants are used to alter mood, organic nitrites are used primarily as sexual enhancers. Organic nitrites include amyl, butyl, and cyclohexyl nitrites and other related compounds, and are commonly known as "poppers." Amyl nitrite was used in the past to alleviate chest pain and is sometimes used today for diagnostic purposes in heart examinations. Most poppers contain isobutyl nitrite or butyl nitrite. These nitrites are often sold in small brown bottles and labeled as "video head cleaner," "room odorizer," "leather cleaner," or "liquid aroma."
Inhalants can be breathed in through the nose or the mouth in a variety of ways, such as:
Because intoxication lasts only a few minutes, abusers frequently try to prolong the high by continuing to inhale repeatedly over the course of several hours, a very dangerous practice.
Animal and human research show that most inhalants are extremely toxic:
Most inhalants act directly on the central nervous system (CNS) to produce psychoactive, or mind-altering, effects. They have short-term effects similar to anesthetics, which slow the body's functions.
amyl nitrite, butyl nitrite
("poppers," "video head cleaner")
sudden sniffing death syndrome, suppressed immunologic function, injury to red blood cells (interfering with oxygen supply to vital tissues) benzene (found in gasoline) bone marrow injury, impaired immunologic function, increased risk of leukemia, reproductive system toxicity
(found in lighter fluid, hair and paint sprays)
sudden sniffing death syndrome via cardiac effects, serious burn injuries (because of flammability)
(used as a refrigerant and aerosol propellant)
sudden sniffing death syndrome, respiratory obstruction and death (from sudden cooling/cold injury to airways), liver damage
(found in paint thinners and removers, degreasers)
reduction of oxygen-carrying capacity of blood, changes to the heart muscle and heartbeat
nitrous oxide ("laughing gas"), hexane
death from lack of oxygen to the brain, altered perception and motor coordination, loss of sensation, limb spasms, blackouts caused by blood pressure changes, depression of heart muscle functioning
(found in gasoline, paint thinners and removers, correction fluid)
brain damage (loss of brain tissue mass, impaired cognition, gait disturbance, loss of coordination, loss of equilibrium, limb spasms, hearing and vision loss), liver and kidney damage
(found in spot removers, degreasers)
sudden sniffing death syndrome, cirrhosis of the liver, reproductive complications, hearing and vision damage.
Early identification and intervention are the best ways to stop inhalant abuse before it causes serious health consequences. Parents, educators, family physicians, and other health care practitioners should be alert to the following signs of a serious inhalant abuse problem:
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