Inhalant Addiction and Treatment

What are Inhalants?

Inhalants are breathable chemical vapors that produce psychoactive (mind-altering) effects. A variety of products common in the home and in the workplace contain substances that can be inhaled. Many people do not think of these products, such as spray paints, glues, and cleaning fluids, as drugs because they were never meant to be used to achieve an intoxicating effect.

Inhalants - particularly volatile solvents, gases, and aerosols - are often among the first drugs that young children use. One national survey indicates that about 3.0% of U.S. children have tried inhalants by the time they reach fourth grade. Inhalant abuse can become chronic and extend into adulthood.

Generally, inhalant abusers will abuse any available substance. However, effects produced by individual inhalants vary, and some individuals will go out of their way to obtain their favorite inhalant. For example, in certain parts of the country, "Texas shoe-shine," a shoe-shining spray containing the chemical toluene, is a local favorite. Silver and gold spray paints, which contain more toluene than other spray colors, also are popular inhalants.

Inhalants fall into the following categories:

Volatile Solvents

  • Industrial or household solvents or solvent-containing products, including paint thinners or removers, degreasers, dry-cleaning fluids, gasoline, and glue
  • Art or office supply solvents, including correction fluids, felt-tip-marker fluid, and electronic contact cleaners


  • Household aerosol propellants and associated solvents in items such as spray paints, hair or deodorant sprays, fabric protector sprays, aerosol computer cleaning products, and vegetable oil sprays


  • Gases used in household or commercial products,including butane lighters and propane tanks, whipping cream aerosols or dispensers (whippets), and refrigerant gases
  • Medical anesthetic gases, such as ether, chloroform, halothane, and nitrous oxide ("laughing gas")


  • Organic nitrites are volatiles that include cyclohexyl, butyl, and amyl nitrites, commonly known as "poppers." Amyl nitrite is still used in certain diagnostic medical procedures. Volatile nitrites are often sold in small brown bottles labeled as "video head cleaner," "room odorizer," "leather cleaner," or "liquid aroma."

What are The Patterns of Inhalant Abuse?

Initial use of inhalants often starts early. Some young people may use inhalants as an easily accessible substitute for alcohol. Research suggests that chronic or long-term inhalant abusers are among the most difficult drug abuse patients to treat. Many suffer from cognitive impairment and other neurological dysfunction and may experience multiple psychological and social problems.

Monitoring the Future (MTF) Survey

According to the 2005 Monitoring the Future survey, lifetime use of inhalants measured 17.1% among 8th-graders, 13.1% among 10th grade students, and 11.4% among 12th-graders in 2005.

MTF's lifetime prevalence figures indicate that the percentages of students who have tried inhalants continue to decrease steadily for 10th- and 12th-graders. In 2004, 12.4% of 10th-graders and 11.9% of 12th-graders said they have abused inhalants at least once in their lives. Although lifetime prevalence peaked for 8th-graders in 1995 (21.6%), rates of inhalant use among this group are still high. In fact, 8th-graders reported a significant increase in lifetime use from 15.8% in 2003 to 17.3% in 2004. For 10th-graders, the peak was 19.3% in 1996. For seniors, rates were highest in 1994 at 17.7%.

These data raise a question: How can fewer 12th-graders than 8th-graders consistently report they have ever abused inhalants? Possibly, many 12th-graders fail to recall their much earlier use of inhalants or, more troubling, many 8th-grade inhalant abusers may have dropped out of school by the 12th grade and are no longer included in the survey population. Data from national and State surveys suggest inhalant abuse reaches its peak at some point during the seventh through ninth grades.

Percent of 8th-Graders Reporting
Lifetime Use of Inhalants Increased

Trends in Use of Inhalants

Gender differences in inhalant abuse have been identified at different points in childhood. The 2004 MTF indicates that 10.5% of 8th grade females reported using inhalants in the past year, compared with 8.8% of 8th grade males. Among 12th- graders, 3.4% of females and 4.8% of males reported using inhalants in the past year.

People who abuse inhalants are found in both urban and rural settings. Research on factors contributing to inhalant abuse suggests that adverse socioeconomic conditions, a history of childhood abuse, poor grades, and dropping out of school all are associated with inhalant abuse.

2004/2005 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH)

Among youths age 12 to 17, 10.6% were current illicit drug users in 2004, and 1.2% of those reported current inhalant use. Among 12- or 13-year-olds, 1.2% reported current inhalant use; 1.6% of 14- or 15-year-olds reported current use.

Lifetime use of inhalants was down in 2004 among Americans in the 18 - 20 age group. While declines were reported also for lifetime use among Asians age 18 - 25, their past-month use of inhalants rose significantly. Past-year use rose significantly among 21 year-olds in 2004. The number of new inhalant users increased from 627,000 new users in 1994 to 1 million in 2002. Inhalant initiates were predominantly under age 18 (78 percent in 2002).

In 2004, the number of new inhalant users was about 857,000.

Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN)

The 2003 Drug Abuse Warning Network Interim Report estimates 627,923 drug-related emergency department visits for the 3rd and 4th quarters of 2003. Inhalants were attributed to 1,681 of these reported visits.

How are Inhalants Used?

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