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Inhalant Addiction: Signs, Effects, and Treatment

4 min read · 4 sections

Inhalants are a group of volatile, vapor-emitting or aerosolized substances that are inhaled for their mind-altering effects.1 Often found in common products in the home and workplace, inhalants include solvents, aerosol sprays, nitrites, gases, and more.2

While these products do little harm when used for their intended purposes, they can have dangerous effects when inhaled. In fact, long-term use of certain inhalants can lead to asphyxia-related brain damage, progressive liver injury, hearing loss, bone marrow disease, and more.3 What’s more, inhalants can be fatal anytime they’re used—including the first time.4

Read on to learn more about the various types of inhalants and their related effects and addictive properties, along with the signs and symptoms of inhalant abuse and available treatment options.

What Is an Inhalant?

Readily available and relatively inexpensive, many types of inhalants are volatile substances that can rapidly create mind-altering effects and a sense of euphoria.3,4 Several inhalant substances derive from products such as gas, paint thinners, aerosols, glue, spray paint, etc. As such, inhalants don’t comprise a very neat or homogenous group of recreationally used substances, though some of their chemical components are reinforcing in nature when used, similar to other drugs.5 Though it occurs less prevalently than with substances such as alcohol and opioids, the development of substance use disorder is possible with inhalants, and the related compulsive patterns of inhalant use can have potentially lethal consequences.1,6

The intoxicating effects of many types of inhalants only lasts for a short period, which can make it relatively easy to conceal inhalant use from others.4 Plus, since many inhalant products are fairly easy to access, they’re often used by young people who lack the means to obtain pricey or less available drugs.7 In fact, according to the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, adolescents (aged 12 to 17) accounted for the largest percentage of inhalant users, i.e., 2.7% (683,000) of the U.S. population. All told, the survey indicated that 2.4 million people aged 12 or older had used inhalants in the last year.8

This link between inhalants and young people is particularly troubling since inhalants appear to be gateway drugs for some people. That is, people who use inhalants, especially at young ages, may be at an increased risk for other illicit substance use later in life.7

Inhalants can be used in several ways including:2

  • Sniffing or snorting the substances directly from their containers.
  • Spraying aerosols into the mouth or nose.
  • Bagging,e., spraying or placing the substance into a paper or plastic bag and inhaling or snorting it.
  • Huffing,e., soaking a rag with inhalants and placing it in the mouth or over the mouth or nose before inhaling.
  • Inhaling from balloons filled with nitrous oxide.

Although the intoxicating effects from a single use of inhalants may last only minutes to an hour, most people who use inhalants do so repeatedly over time, with such patterns of use often then repeated over the course of more than a year—ultimately leading to chronic but intermittent exposure to these substances.5

Types of Inhalants

Inhalants include a wide range of substances and are often broken down into the following four broad categories.2

  • Volatile solvents are liquid substances that emit vapors at room temperature. Volatile solvents can be found in felt-tip markers, liquid correction fluid (e.g., Wite Out), glues, gasoline, degreaser, dry-cleaning fluid, and paint thinners/removers.
  • Aerosols include sprayable substances that contain solvents and propellants. Examples include hair spray, spray-on deodorant, cooking oil sprays, spray paint, and fabric protection sprays.
  • Gases include substances used as anesthesia for medical procedures (e.g., ether, chloroform, and nitrous oxide) and others found in household and commercial products, such as whipped cream dispensers, butane lighters, propane tanks, and refrigerants.
  • Nitrites are vasodilating agents historically used in medical testing procedures and for managing heart pain (i.e., angina). Some nitrites abused as inhalants are sold in little bottles under the street names of leather cleaner, liquid aroma, room odorizer, rush, and video head cleaner. Note that nitrites don’t act directly on the central nervous system like other types of inhalants. Rather, nitrites, which are often misused as sexual enhancers, relax muscles and dilate blood vessels.

Are Inhalants Addictive?

While uncommon, repeated use of inhalants can lead to addiction.3 Additionally, many individuals report a strong need to continues use, particularly if they’ve abused inhalants for prolonged periods.2

People who use inhalants regularly can also develop a tolerance to the effects, which means increasing amounts of the substance are needed to achieve the same effects, which could ultimately contribute to ever-increasing patterns of compulsive use.6 What’s more, continued (and potentially escalating) patterns of problematic use can place people at a cumulatively increased risk of several adverse health outcomes—including inhalant overdose, seizures, coma, and even death.3

Signs of Inhalant Abuse

If you suspect that you or someone you care about has a problem with inhalants, it may be helpful to understand the following criteria used by treatment professionals to diagnose inhalant use disorder.6

A diagnosis of an inhalant use disorder can be made based on the presence of two or more of the following criteria within a 12-month period:6

  • Using inhalants in higher amounts or for longer than initially planned.
  • Wanting or trying to cut back or stop, and not being able to do so.
  • Spending a lot of time getting, using, or recuperating from inhalant effects.
  • Experiencing strong cravings to use inhalants.
  • Ongoing inhalant use that interferes with the ability to complete important home, school, or work responsibilities.
  • Inability to stop using inhalants even after it has caused or worsened issues in social relationships.
  • Cutting back on or quitting social activities or hobbies due to inhalant use.
  • Ongoing inhalant use in situations that can be physically dangerous, such as while driving.
  • Inability to stop using inhalants despite knowing that it has caused or worsened physical or mental health issues.
  • Developing a tolerance to the effects of inhalants so that the same amount has less of an effect and a larger amount is required to cause a high.

Physical Signs of Potential Inhalant Abuse

Though many clinical drug tests or toxicology screens may be unable to confirm many specific types of inhalant use, there may be certain signs and symptoms that arise in someone using these types of drugs. Though they are not all necessarily specific to inhalant use, the following physical and behavioral signs may be present in someone who is misusing inhalants:1

  • Weight loss, muscle weakness.
  • Disorientation, inattentiveness.
  • Lack of coordination.
  • Irritability, excitability.
  • Depression/anxiety.
  • Damage to organs and the central nervous system.
  • Paint/stains on the body or clothing.
  • Sores around the mouth.
  • Red or runny eyes/nose.
  • Drunken, dazed, or dizzy appearance.
  • Nausea, loss of appetite.
  • Chemical-like breath odor.

Withdrawal from Inhalants

Both inhalant dependence and withdrawal symptoms are fairly uncommon. And in fact, since inhalants encompass such a varied group of substances, there isn’t a typical, well-defined withdrawal syndrome that covers all inhalant substances.9

That said, withdrawal-related symptoms have been reported, some of which can develop upon suddenly stopping inhalant use after as little as three months of regular use.9 Additionally, inhalant withdrawal symptoms, which typically last 2 to 5 days, can include:3,9

  • Alterations in mood.
  • Irritability.
  • Anxiety.
  • Problems sleeping.
  • Sweating.
  • Nausea.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Tingling sensations.
  • Muscle cramps.
  • Tremors.
  • Seizures.

There are no reversal agents to manage acute intoxication from inhalants nor any medications specifically indicated to manage inhalant withdrawal.7 As such, inhalant withdrawal is typically treated with supportive care in a controlled setting, which means providing a safe, substance-free environment that offers a well-balanced diet, sufficient sleep, and medical and mental-health supervision, followed by connecting patients to a comprehensive treatment program.7,9

Inhalant Addiction Treatment and Aftercare

If you or a loved one has issues with inhalant use, treatment is available, including counseling, behavioral therapy, and more. No single treatment option is right for everyone, and it’s important that treatment addresses all of the patient’s needs, not just the drug use.10

Typical treatment options include:

  • Inpatient care involves staying at the facility during treatment, partaking in both group and individual counseling, and having access to staff around the clock to provide support as needed.10,11 This setting is ideal for people who struggle to refrain from using inhalants or other substances and those who have additional physical or mental health issues that need to be simultaneously addressed.9
  • Outpatient care allows you to live in your own residence and attend scheduled group and individual counseling appointments of varying intensity based on your needs.10,11 Outpatient care is optimal for those who are able to avoid using inhalants, alcohol, and other drugs, have strong support systems in place, and don’t have any significant physical or mental health issues.9
  • Aftercare offers ongoing support after completing formal treatment. It can include sober housing, private therapy, support groups, 12-step programs, alumni groups, and other community programs.10 This allows you to continue receiving some of the structured support you are familiar with from treatment while also helping you get accustomed to living independently without returning to substance use.11

If you or a loved one is struggling with inhalant abuse or addiction, American Addiction Centers can help. Our programs offer treatment options ranging from detox to aftercare—and everything in between. Contact our admissions navigators, who are available 24/7 to answer your questions and help support you as you take your first steps toward recovery.

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