The Growing Problem of Inhalant Abuse

What Are Inhalants?

An inhalant can be defined as a breathable chemical vapor that produces mind-altering effects. Many inhalants are common household products you would never suspect could be a deadly drug because they were never meant to be a drug of abuse. For example, people may get high on spray paints, glue or cleaning fluids despite the risks .

Inhalants tend to be a drug of choice for children and teens. . N ational surveys suggest that some children have tried inhalants by the time they reach fourth grade. Inhalant abuse may begin early, and can become a chronic drug problem that extends into adulthood.

Most people who abuse inhalants are not picky – they will abuse any available substance. However, some individuals will go out of their way to obtain their favorite inhalant because of the particular high it offers. For example, "Texas shoe-shine," a shoe-shining spray containing the chemical toluene, is a local favorite in certain parts of the country. Other popular inhalants include silver and gold spray paints, which contain more of the active chemical toluene than other spray colors .

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Most Abused Inhalants

Some of the most popular inhalants among teens and other drug users include:


  • Products containing aerosol propellants, such as spray paints, hair or deodorant sprays, fabric protector sprays, computer cleaning products and vegetable oil sprays

Volatile Solvents

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


  • Volatile materials such as cyclohexyl, butyl and amyl nitrites, also known as "poppers." These products may be sold in small brown bottles labeled as "video head cleaner," "room odorizer," "leather cleaner" or "liquid aroma."


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

The Who, When & How of Inhalant Abuse

Inhalant abuse often starts early. Children and teens may use inhalants as a substitute for alcohol because they are cheaper and easier to obtain.  Surveys show that middle school and high school students, both male and female, are at the greatest risk of inhalant abuse.

People who abuse inhalants come from all different places and backgrounds. Factors that contribute to inhalant abuse include adverse socioeconomic conditions, a history of childhood abuse, poor grades and dropping out of school.

Some of the most common ways children and teens abuse inhalants are:

  • "Sniffing" or "snorting" fumes from containers
  • Spraying aerosols directly into the nose or mouth
  • Sniffing or inhaling fumes from substances sprayed or placed inside a plastic or paper bag (also known as “bagging”)
  • "Huffing" from an inhalant-soaked rag stuffed in the mouth
  • Inhaling from balloons filled with nitrous oxide

The Dangers of Huffing & Other Forms of Inhalant Abuse

If you walked into a teenager’s room and saw hair spray, room deodorizer and bathroom cleaner, you probably wouldn’t suspect that the teen was in danger. But in some cases, these personal and household items can be misused, potentially resulting in serious health problems and addiction.

When inhaled, sniffed or inhaled, chemicals are rapidly absorbed through the lungs into the bloodstream and sent to the brain and other organs. Within seconds , the user experiences a high, along with other effects similar to those produced by drinking alcohol, such as slurred speech, lack of coordination and dizziness. In some cases , users may experience hallucinations and delusions. The feelings of stimulation and lack of inhibitions are part of the appeal of inhalants.

Although many adolescents don’t recognize the dangers, the consequences of inhalant abuse can be severe. Like anesthetics, inhalants slow down the body’s essential functions like breathing, which can lead to unconsciousness and suffocation.

High concentrations of inhalants (particularly abuse of butane, propane, and chemicals in aerosols) can also cause heart failure and death (a syndrome known as "sudden sniffing death)." This syndrome can result from a single session of inhalant use by an otherwise healthy young person.

Some of the other risks of abuse of solvents and other inhalants include:

  • Brain damage
  • Limb spasms
  • Hearing loss
  • Bone marrow damage
  • Live and kidney damage
  • Seizures or convulsions
  • Coma
  • Choking

People who abuse nitrites (mainly older adolescents and adults) typically do so to enhance sexual function and pleasure. Nitrite abuse is associated with unsafe sexual practices that increase the risk of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Signs of Inhalant Abuse

Preventing inhalant abuse starts with education and communication. Inhalant abuse can be easy to hide so be sure to keep the lines of communication open in your home.

Here are some of the signs of inhalant abuse:

  • Lack of coordination
  • Slurred speech
  • The smell of chemicals on breath or clothing
  • Inability to focus or pay attention
  • Empty chemical containers or hidden rags
  • Irritability
Treating Inhalant Abuse or Addiction to Inhalants

The high from inhalant abuse lasts for only a few minutes, which means users have to huff, sniff or inhale more chemicals in order to maintain the euphoric effects. With each episode of inhalant abuse, users put themselves at risk of suffocation, organ damage, unconsciousness and death.

Many people who abuse inhalants report feeling a strong need to continue the behavior, particularly when they abuse inhalants for prolonged periods of time. With long-term inhalant abuse, users may experience compulsive use and mild withdrawal symptoms.

Getting treatment for inhalant abuse early on is critical for the individual’s health and well-being. Studies show that chronic or long-term inhalant abusers are among the most difficult patients to treat. Many suffer from cognitive impairment and other neurological problems and may experience psychological and social problems.

Do you think you, or someone close to you, may be abusing inhalants? Don’t wait until lasting damage is done. Call 866-323-5612 for a free assessment and consultation with an experienced counselor. You have the power to save a life.

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