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Article Summary

Types of Inhalants

  • Solvents: industrial or household solvents or solvent-containing products, including paint thinners or solvents, degreasers (dry-cleaning fluids), gasoline, and glues art or office supply solvents, including correction fluids, felt-tip marker fluid, and electronic contact cleaners
  • Gases: gases used in household or commercial products, including butane lighters and propane tanks, whipping cream aerosols or dispensers (whippets), and refrigerant gases household aerosol propellants and associated solvents in items such as spray paints, hair or deodorant sprays, and fabric protector sprays medical anesthetic gases, such as ether, chloroform, halothane, and nitrous oxide (laughing gas)
  • Nitrites: aliphatic nitrites, including cyclohexyl nitrite, which is available to the general public; amyl nitrite, which is available only by prescription; and butyl nitrite, which is now an illegal substance

The dangers of using inhalants

Although different in makeup, nearly all abused inhalants produce effects similar to anesthetics, which act to slow down the body's functions.? When inhaled via the nose or mouth into the lungs in sufficient concentrations, inhalants can cause intoxicating effects.

Intoxication can last only a few minutes or several hours if inhalants are taken repeatedly.? Initially, users may feel slightly stimulated.? With successive inhalations, they may feel less inhibited and less in control.? Finally, an user can lose consciousness.

?Sniffing highly concentrated amounts of the chemicals in solvents or aerosol sprays can directly induce heart failure and death.? This is especially common from the abuse of fluorocarbons and butane-type gases.

?High concentrations of inhalants also cause death from suffocation by displacing oxygen in the lungs and then in the central nervous system so that breathing ceases.

Other irreversible effects

  • Hearing loss - toluene (paint sprays, glues, dewaxers) and trichloroethylene (cleaning fluids, correction fluids)
  • Peripheral neuropathies or limb spasms - hexane (glues, gasoline) and nitrous oxide (whipping cream, gas cylinders)
  • Central nervous system or brain damage - toluene (paint sprays, glues, dewaxers)
  • Bone marrow damage - benzene (gasoline)

Amyl and butyl nitrites have been associated with Kaposi's sarcoma (KS), the most common cancer reported among AIDS patients.? Early studies of KS showed that many people with KS had used volatile nitrites.? Researchers are continuing to explore the hypothesis of nitrites as a factor contributing to the development of KS in HIV-infected people.

Serious but potentially reversible effects

  • Liver and kidney damage - toluene-containing substances and chlorinated hydrocarbons (correction fluids, dry-cleaning fluids)
  • Blood oxygen depletion - organic nitrites (poppers, bold, and rush) and methylene chloride (varnish removers, paint thinners)

Death from inhalants

Death from inhalants is usually caused by a very high concentration of fumes.? Deliberately inhaling from an attached paper or plastic bag or in a closed area greatly increases the chances of suffocation.? Even when using aerosols or volatile products for their legitimate purposes (i.e., painting, cleaning), it is wise to do so in a well-ventilated room or outdoors.

Prevention and Treatment

National surveys indicate that more than 12.5? million Americans have abused inhalants at least once in their lives.? Initial use of inhalants often starts early, often in elementary school.? According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), approximately one in five eighth-graders have abused inhalants.? Most inhalant abuse occurs after dinner between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m.

  • Talk with your child about not experimenting with inhalants.
  • Discuss this problem openly and stress the devastating and life-threatening consequences of inhalant abuse.
  • Be alert for symptoms and signs of inhalant abuse.
  • If you suspect there's a problem, seek professional help immediately.

Immediate treatment is directed at reversing life-threatening symptoms.? A calm, quiet atmosphere should be provided to prevent adrenalin surge which can bring about cardiac arrhythmia and cause Sudden Sniffing Death (SSD).? Know what to do in an emergency.

Compulsive use and a mild withdrawal syndrome can occur with long-term inhalant abuse.? Research suggests that chronic or long-term inhalant abusers are among the most difficult to treat and they may experience multiple psychological and social problems.? There is more chance of recovery the earlier intervention begins.

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