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Article Summary


The term “inhalants” is used to describe chemical or gases breathed in by the drug abuser in order to get “high”. Typically, inhalants are glue, gasoline, cleaning solvents and aerosols which have legitimate, every day and ordinary uses; these solvents were never meant for human consumption. Because these products are legal, cheap and easy to come by the most common abusers of them are children and young adults. There are countless specific inhalants that are abused.

Commonly Abused Inhalants

  • Aerosol or spray cans: Hair spray, spray paint, cooking spray and other aerosol products contain pressurized liquids or gases such as fluorocarbon and butane. Some aerosol products also contain solvents.
  • Gases: This includes some medical anesthetics, such as nitrous oxide ("laughing gas"), chloroform, halothane and ether, as well as gases found in commercially available products, such as butane lighters and propane tanks.
  • Nitrites: Amyl nitrite, butyl nitrite and cyclohexyl nitrite (also known as "poppers") are different from other inhalants in effect and availability. They are sold as "room odourizer" or "video head cleaner." Amyl nitrite is used medically to treat cyanide poisoning; butyl nitrite is an illegal substance in the United States.
  • Volatile solvents: These are the most commonly abused type of inhalants. "Volatile" means they evaporate when exposed to air, and "solvent" means they dissolve many other substances. Examples of solvents used as inhalants include benzene, toluene, xylene, acetone, naptha and hexane. Products such as gasoline, cleaning fluids, paint thinners, hobby glue, correction fluid and felt-tip markers contain a mixture of different types of solvents.

These substances are taken a variety of ways depending on the inhalant being abused. They may be inhaled directly from the container (sniffed), inhaled from a soaked rag held to the face (huffed), inhaled from a bag (bagged) or inhaled from a balloon. As mentioned, the typical user is young, between 10 and 16 years old. Most try inhalants just a few times before moving on to something else. Those who choose to continue to abuse inhalants often develop a psychological dependence on the substance and become chronic solvent users throughout their 20’s.

Inhalant Effects

Because the substances in inhalants are absorbed through the user’s lungs it travels quickly through their bloodstream to their brain. Users get almost immediate gratification and feel the effects of the drug almost instantly. The various types of inhalants produce different effects. Inhaled solvents usually produce an alcohol-like buzz with more distortion of perception. The shape, size and color of objects will become inaccurate and the user’s sense of time and space will be off. At first, those new to inhalants will become excited, then become drowsy and fall asleep. Inhalant abusers who regally inhale these toxic substances may feel euphoric, exhilarated and have vivid fantasies. Some feel giddy, outgoing and confident. Negative physical effects may include dizziness, nausea, vomiting, blurred vision, sneezing and coughing, staggering, slow reflexes and sensitivity to light.

The effects of nitrous oxide produce a dreamy mental state, loss of motor control, hallucinations and an increased threshold for pain. When a person abuses nitrites the substance dilates blood vessels and relaxes muscles. The heartbeat quickens and blood rushes to the head, creating a "rush." Nitrites also cause headaches, dizziness, nausea and flushing. Some men use nitrites during sex for the drugs' capacity to relax muscles and promote blood flow.

Inhalant Abuse Treatment

While the majority of inhalant users do not become addicted to these substances and need treatment some people do. A person who develops an addiction to these highly toxic chemicals will need help to come clean and lean to live without getting high. Drug rehabilitation helps the recovering individual learn the necessary life tools to stay clean and sober when they return home. During their time in treatment they address their medical and psychiatric needs, are provided nutritional and mineral supplements necessary for their physical health, work on their interpersonal skills relating to family and friendships and improve their daily living skills.

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