It usually takes both considerable money and effort for an addict to acquire their drug of choice. After all, with the exception of alcohol, most addictive substances are either controlled or illegal. Unfortunately, there is one category of drugs that is not only legal, it’s widely available and affordable — inhalants.
Inhalant abuse is the deliberate sniffing of common household products with the purpose of getting high. More than 22.9 million Americans have experimented with inhalants at some point in their lives, but the percentage of usage is highest among children ages 12-15. Addiction to inhalants is particularly difficult to recover from — and the rate of relapse is extremely high.
Inhalants are breathed in by sniffing or snorting fumes from containers, spraying aerosols directly into the nose or mouth, inhaling fumes from substances sprayed inside a plastic or paper bag, or by huffing from an inhalant-soaked rag stuffed in the mouth.
Types of Inhalants Abused
Although many drugs can be inhaled, the term inhalants is used to describe a variety of substances that are rarely, if ever, taken by any route other than inhalation. Since this definition covers a broad range of chemicals that are found in hundreds of different products, inhalants have been grouped into four general categories:
- Volatile Solvents — Liquids that vaporize at room temperature, including paint thinners and removers, dry-cleaning fluids, degreasers, gasoline, glues, correction fluids, and felt-tip markers.
- Aerosols — Sprays that contain propellants and solvents. They include spray paints, deodorant and hair sprays, vegetable oil sprays, and fabric protector sprays.
- Gases — Medical anesthetics and gases used in household or commercial products. Examples: ether, chloroform, halothane, nitrous oxide, butane, propane, and refrigerants.
- Nitrites — A special class of inhalants that dilate blood vessels and relax the muscles, rather than acting directly on the central nervous system like other inhalants. Nitrites include cyclohexyl nitrite, isoamyl nitrite, and isobutyl nitrite. Though nitrites are now prohibited by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, they are often still sold in small bottles labeled as “video head cleaner,” “room odorizer,” “leather cleaner,” or “liquid aroma.”
Nearly all abused inhalants — other than nitrites — produce a pleasurable effect by depressing the central nervous system. Within seconds of inhalation, chemicals are absorbed into the bloodstream through the lungs and distributed to the brain and other organs. The user experiences intoxication and other effects similar to those produced by alcohol, including slurred speech, the inability to coordinate movements, euphoria, and dizziness. In addition, they may experience lightheadedness, hallucinations, and delusions. As the high subsides, it is followed by drowsiness, disinhibition, lightheadedness, and agitation.
Inhaled nitrites dilate blood vessels, increase heart rate, and produce a sensation of both warmth and excitement that lasts for several minutes. Other effects include dizziness and headache.
Because intoxication only lasts minutes, abusers often seek to prolong the high by repeated inhalations over the course of several hours. This is incredibly dangerous. With each successive inhalation, users risk a multitude of disastrous medical consequences, including Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome. This syndrome occurs when the highly concentrated chemicals in solvents or aerosol sprays induce irregular and rapid heart rhythms, leading to fatal heart failure. Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome is not relegated to chronic abusers. It’s estimated that 30 percent of people who die from using inhalants are first-time users.
Inhalant abuse also can cause death by:
Most inhalants are extremely toxic. Chronic exposure to inhalants causes widespread and long-lasting damage to the brain and other parts of the nervous system. Prolonged inhalant abuse damage the parts of the brain involved in controlling cognition, movement, vision, and hearing — leading to abnormalities ranging from mild impairment to severe dementia.
Besides injuring the brain, inhalant abuse can also produce significant damage to the heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys. Though some inhalant-induced organ damage can be at least partially reversed when inhalant abuse is stopped, most syndromes caused by repeated or prolonged abuse are irreversible.
Signs of Use
The signs of inhalant abuse are oftentimes more subtle than commonly abused drugs since the effects are experienced rapidly and disappear quickly. Only small amounts of an inhalant are required to reach a high, and the abused products are generally legal, making their purchase and storage less conspicuous. If you suspect inhalant abuse, look for the following signs:
- Chemical odors on breath or clothing
- Paint or other stains on face, hands, or clothes
- Hidden empty spray paint or solvent containers, and chemical-soaked rags or clothing
- Changes in school attendance
- Inattentiveness, irritability, and depression
- Poor hygiene
- Slurred speech
- Facial rash and nosebleeds
- Muscle weakness and lack of coordination
- Nausea, loss of appetite, weight loss
Unfortunately, inhalant-specific treatment programs can be difficult to find. Programs require thirty to forty days or more for detoxification. Users suffer withdrawal symptoms that include hallucinations, nausea, excessive sweating, tremors, muscle cramps, headaches, chills, and delirium tremens.
Since inhalant abusers are often young and suffer from social dysfunction, co-conditions such as other substance dependencies, psychiatric, and physical disorders must be treated. The high rate of relapse can be partially avoided by the use of a peer-patient advocate system and appropriate follow-up treatment.
Recovering from inhalant addiction takes both patience and understanding on the part of family and friends of the abuser. For long-time addicts, inhalants become the source of comfort one might normally find in friends and family. As they go through treatment and try to stay clean, replacing inhalants with real relationships can be difficult. If recovering addicts feel alone, returning to drugs may seem like the only choice. They will need help filling the void left by the inhalants with the support of loved ones.
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