The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that according to survey participation, approximately 21.7 million teens aged 12 and older admitted to trying to get high at least once by inhaling a chemical substance. Teens and parents must know that the practice is extremely dangerous, whether experimenting for the first time or regularly engaging in the behavior. The toxic chemicals chosen cause an array of symptoms that affect every system in the body. Over time, inhaling harmful substances may cause irreversible damage to the brain, heart, liver and kidneys. Researchers performed extensive studies on the topic to compile comprehensive information concerning the potentially life-threatening habit.
About the Inhalants
Many of the chemicals used during inhaling episodes are commonly found around the home or workplace. These substances often include cleaning fluids, glues, markers and paint removers in aerosol, gas or liquid form. The immense list of possible products available produces a variety of problems. However, overall, once inhaled, the fumes or vapors emitted by the chemicals provide users with mind-altering sensations.
- Aerosols – Typically found in a can, the propellant or solvent that creates the spray causes the desired effect. This classification includes everything from deodorant, hair spray, fabric protector sprays, spray paints or baking spray containing flour and vegetable oil.
- Gases – The chemicals of choice in this category include chloroform, ether, halothane and nitrous oxide. Nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, is the most widely abused of all of the gases and is readily available in canned whipped cream or in canisters used to boost the engine performance in racing vehicles. Other commonly abused gases include butane lighters, propane and refrigerant fumes.
- Nitrites – These substances belong to a special class of inhalants that specifically affect the central nervous system. When inhaled, the fumes dilate blood vessels and relax muscles. These products are preferred for heightening sexual sensation. Called “poppers” or “snappers,” this class of chemicals includes amyl nitrite, cyclohexyl nitrite, isoamyl nitrite and isobutyl nitrite. The Consumer Product Safety Commission generally prohibits the manufacturing of products containing these chemicals. However, leather cleaner, liquid aroma, room deodorizers and VHS head cleaning products all contain one or more of the potentially dangerous substances in liquid or gaseous form.
- Volatile solvents – These substances produce fumes at room temperature and are found in numerous household and industrial products. Inexpensive and easily obtained, the list includes correction fluids, degreasing agents, dry-cleaning fluids, felt-tip markers, gasoline, glues and paint thinner.
Individuals engaging in this behavior experiment with any chemical substance available. Some may prefer the effects of a particular chemical and make the effort to seek that specific inhalant. For example, an aerosol can containing shoe-shining chemicals and toluene is favored by many in certain regions.
Prevalence of Inhaling
In 2010, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health revealed that almost 800,000 youngsters between the ages of 12 to 18 experienced inhaling for the first time. Most reported that aerosols, gases and solvents were the chemicals of choice due to their accessibility. Junior High and High School students reported the highest rate of abuse. The rate of abuse also varied from a one-time experience to chronic use. Demographic studies indicate that inhalant abuse occurs almost twice as often among young females compared to young males. Hispanic youth express a higher rate of abuse compared to black or white youth. The behavior is equally common in rural and urban settings. Nonetheless, the habit remains more common in children from low-income households, having a history of abuse, perform poorly academically or quit school. Though more popular during the 1990s, the National Capital Poison Center reports that hospital emergency rooms continue admitting youngsters suffering from the effects of inhalants.
The Act of Inhaling
The chemicals are breathed into the body through the nose or mouth in different ways.
- Bagging – The substance is deposited or sprayed into a paper or plastic bag and then inhaled.
- Huffing – This practice involves soaking a rag in the preferred substance and absorbing the fumes orally.
- Inhaling – Balloons are filled with nitrous oxide, or another substance, and then breathed in from the balloon nasally or orally.
- Sniffing or snorting – involves nasally ingesting fumes from liquids in containers
- Spraying aerosol substances into the mouth or nose
The Appealing High of Inhalants
Once inhaled, the chemicals enter the bloodstream and travel from the lungs to the brain and other organs. The intoxicating effects are experienced within minutes and may resemble alcohol intoxication. Many of the chemicals abused depress the central nervous system in this way. Toluene, which produces the characteristic odor of model glue, spray paint and cosmetic nail polish removers, stimulates dopamine release in the brain. This is the neurotransmitting chemical responsible for the pleasure sensation.
Individuals under the influence of an inhalant may also feel dizzy, euphoric, have slurred speech and become physically clumsy. Depending on the abused substance, users might suffer delusions or hallucinations. As the effects may only last a few minutes, users commonly continue inhaling the substance at intervals. After heavy use, some may experience continued drowsiness and suffer lingering headaches. This succession of exposure may render abusers unconscious or cause death.
Additionally, inhalant chemicals might cause a lack of inhibition, belligerence, impaired judgment, nausea or vomiting. High doses cause confusion, delirium and progressive muscle relaxation to the point of generalized weakness, drowsiness and unconsciousness.
Many youngsters admitting to abusing chemicals by inhaling also report a need to continue the habit. The longer someone engages in the behavior, the greater the likelihood of an addictive-like habit forming. Surveys also revealed that more than 40,000 people using inhalants also began abusing alcohol, smoking cigarettes or progressed to illegal or prescription drugs at a younger age compared to individuals who did not experiment with inhaling.
Medical Consequences of Abuse
- Asphyxiation or suffocation – Repeated inhalation causes the chemical to displace oxygen in the lungs. Continued use also keeps oxygen from entering the lungs
- Choking on vomit as a direct result of the chemical or secondary to an injury caused by engaging in behavior while under the influence
- Coma as brain function diminishes
- Convulsions or seizures when the chemical causes abnormally high and continual neuronal transmission within the brain
- Fatal injury suffered while under the influence
- Sudden sniffing death is particularly associated with aerosol, butane or propane abuse and may occur the first time someone inhales one of these substances or with prolonged exposure.
Prolonged exposure to naphthalene, the chemical found in mothballs, or toluene damages the insulating sheath that protects nerve fibers throughout the body. This effect is similar to the deterioration seen in multiple sclerosis patients. The physical symptoms correlate with the region of the nerve cell damage. In the brain, this damage may appear as cognitive impairment ranging from mild to severe dementia. Individuals may also suffer hearing, movement or vision loss.
When continually circulated throughout the body through the blood, various organ systems endure the same damage and malfunction. If females engage in inhaling while pregnant, infants and children suffer neurological and skeletal development abnormalities, along with lowered birth weights. Evaluations performed over a decade in three separate states indicated that 100 to 200 people die every year because of inhalant behavior.
Dangers of Individual Inhaled Chemicals
- Amyl nitrite or butyl nitrite – red blood cell damage, suppressed immune function, sudden sniffing death
- Benzene (gasoline) – bone marrow injury and an increased risk of leukemia, immune system malfunction, reproductive system damage
- Butane or propane – burns secondary to flammability, sudden sniffing death due to cardiac arrest
- Freon – sudden cooling effect of respiratory tract causes obstruction, damage and sudden sniffing death, liver damage
- Methylene chloride – oxygen deprivation due to damaged red blood cells, heart damage and irregular heart beat
- Nitrous oxide or hexane – altered perception, loss of sensation and physical coordination, muscle spasms, unconsciousness secondary to decreased heart rate and blood pressure, death
- Toluene – kidney and liver damage, brain damage from tissue loss causing impaired cognition, impaired senses, impaired mobility and muscle function
- Trichloroethylene – liver damage, reproductive system malfunction, hearing and visual impairment, sudden sniffing death
Recognizing Inhalant Abuse
Knowing that children under the age of 18 are most likely to engage in inhaling behavior, parents, educators and healthcare providers must learn the symptoms of abuse. Intervening early on and getting abusers into counseling and treatment not only prevents possible permanent systemic damage, but also may save a life. Common signs of inhaling include:
- Unusual chemical odor on someone’s breath or clothing
- Paint or chemical stains on the clothes, hands or face
- Empty aerosol cans, chemical containers or chemical-soaked fabric
- Drunken or inebriated behavior as evidenced by a lack of physical coordination or slurred speech
- Appetite loss or nausea
- Depression, irritability, lack of concentration
Inpatient or residential treatment ensures that individuals cannot access the chemicals as staff members closely monitor the behavior of clients. Separated from the distractions that may trigger the temptation to engage in chemical abuse, individuals also have the opportunity to focus on the abuse and learn the techniques necessary to break the dangerous habit.