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Article Summary

The Long Term Effects of Inhalant Abuse

While most of the literature warning against the abuse of inhalants focuses on the high risk of sudden death during use, often ignored are the long term effects that can leave users with both physical and psychological side effects that can persist for many years after the user has become clean.

The following are just a few of the long term effects of inhalant use.

Arrhythmia and Rapid Heartbeat

Most inhalants are central nervous system depressors, and long term use can have a catastrophic impact on multiple organ systems. The most pressing danger, however, is damage to the heart that can cause Sudden Sniffing Death, a fatal condition that results from cardiac arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat) that can cause cardiac arrest.

While arrhythmia can occur even on the first use of an inhalant, long term use greatly increases the risk of developing the condition. Habitual inhalant abusers commonly suffer heart defects that can shorten their life and cause heart failure at any time, even years after the abuse has ended.

Kidney Damage

Sniffing paint thinner and glue can lead to permanent kidney damage due to a build up of harmful chemicals in the organ. In mild cases the user may experience few lasting symptoms, but in severe cases the user may require life-long dialysis or even a kidney transplant. Naturally, a patient with a history of solvent abuse will be unlikely to be prioritized for a transplant.

Lung Damage

All inhalants have the potential to cause long term breathing problems. Inhalation of chemicals can damage lung tissue either immediately or over the long term, reducing lung capacity and causing lung tissue to necrotize. Substances such as nitrites and methylene chloride (a chemical found in paint thinner) can also block the oxygen-carrying capacity of red blood cells, putting uses further at risk.

Brain Damage

With long term use, certain inhalants destroy the myelin sheath that surrounds neurons in the brain - the same damage caused by multiple sclerosis - resulting in cell death and a variety of severe, irreversible forms of brain damage.

1. Personality Changes

Damage to the cerebral cortex can bring about permanent personality changes, most commonly presenting as irritability and depression. Since these conditions are caused by physical damage to the brain rather than a chemical imbalance, treatment may be futile.

2. Sensory Loss

Nerve damage in the brain can cause diminished visual and aural acuity, and coupled with damage to the brain an user may experience visual and auditory hallucinations. Abusers may suffer sensory loss ranging from partial to complete, and in certain cases may also suffer from anosmia (loss of sense of smell).

3. Memory and Intelligence Loss

Cerebral cortex damage can also cause learning disabilities, diminished intelligence and an inability to retain long or short term memories.

Fetal Damage

There is evidence to suggest that inhalant abuse in pregnant women can cause fetal damage with symptoms similar to fetal alcohol syndrome. Babies are often born prematurely and underweight, and there is a greater risk of physical and mental disabilities.

Fetal damage may occur even after inhalant abuse is stopped, due to the long term physical effects of abuse damaging the ability of a pregnant woman to provide for the needs of her unborn child. Organ damage from long term use can increase the risks of pregnancy to both mother and child.

Effects on Musculature and Skeletal Structure

Chronic inhalant abuse often leads to reduced muscle tone, muscle wastage and a loss of physical strength. Furthermore, inhalants such as benzene have been shown to cause leukemia and have a negative effect on bone marrow, depleting the immune system in general.

As such, long term inhalant users are at a much higher risk of infirmity in later life than the average person. They are more susceptible to conditions such as osteoporosis, arthritis and brittle bones.

Systemic bone and muscle damage can combine with brain and nerve damage to cause chronic abusers to suffer from weakness, dizziness and disorientation.

Nerve Damage

As inhalants can damage multiple organ systems they can also cause damage on a small scale. Damage to nerve endings is a common sign of long term abuse, with users experiencing symptoms that can range from numbness and tingling in the extremities all the way to complete, permanent paralysis.

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