Inhalant Abuse: Short- and Long-Term Effects of Inhalants
Often found in common household products, inhalants are volatile, vapor-emitting or aerosolized substances that are inhaled to get high.1,2 When used for their intended purposes such as cleaning, the products are relatively harmless, but they can be dangerous and sometimes deadly when inhaled.2
Including aerosol sprays, solvents, gases, nitrites, and more, inhalants can generate a host of short- and long-term effects.3 Additionally, long-term misuse of some inhalants can lead to a host of issues such as liver injury, hearing loss, asphyxia-related brain damage, and bone marrow disease.2 Plus, in some instances, first-time use of inhalants can be fatal.4
Take a deep dive into inhalants and their various short- and long-term effects. Plus, learn more about inhalant addiction, dependence, withdrawal, and treatment.
What are Inhalants?
Inhalants comprise a category of several different substances that can produce mind-altering effects when inhaled.5 Use of inhalants is often referred to as chroming, bagging, and huffing. And while inhalant effects last only a few minutes to an hour, many people use these substances repeatedly over time, often over the course of more than a year.6
Inhalants are typically organized into four main categories:3
- Aerosols are sprays that are typically found in pressurized cans. Examples include spray forms of deodorant, hair products, fabric protection, cooking oil, and paint.
- Gases are used for medical anesthetic products as well as in commercial products. Nitrous oxide (aka laughing gas), the most commonly misused gas, can be found in whipped cream dispensers. Other inhaled gases come from butane lighters, propane tanks, and anesthetics such as chloroform and ether.
- Volatile solvents are liquids that become gases at room temperature. They can be found in industrial and household products (such as paint thinners, gasoline, lighter fluid, and dry-cleaning fluids) and in art and office supplies (such as felt-tip marker fluid, glue, correction fluids, and keyboard cleaners).
- Nitrites are unique among inhalants in that they also act to dilate blood vessels and relax muscles. Nitrites that are misused, which are often called “poppers,” are frequently used for sexual enhancement rather than mood alteration. They are often sold online or in adult novelty stores and are marketed as nail polish removers, video head cleaners, room odorizers, leather cleaners, and liquid aromas.
Hundreds of common products can be used as inhalants, which means inhalants are legal, relatively inexpensive, and easy to obtain.4 As such, children who often lack the means to secure less available or more expensive drugs typically top the list of inhalant users.7
Immediate and Short-Term Effects of Inhalants
Inhalants enter the bloodstream quickly through the lungs and reach the central nervous system (CNS) and other organs.1 Most inhalants generate initial rapid short-term effects that are similar to alcohol intoxication, which features feelings of excitement followed by drowsiness, lightheadedness, decreased inhibitions, and agitation.3
The immediate side effects of inhalants usually only last several minutes, leading some people to continue using over several hours to maintain a high. However, successive inhalations can lead to loss of consciousness and even death.3 In fact, a single initial use of inhalants can be fatal.4
Common adverse short-term effects of inhalant use include:9
- Poor muscle control (i.e., ataxia).
Long-Term Effects of Inhalants
While some inhalant-related effects may be reversible once you stop using, other effects from prolonged use can be permanent.1
Potentially severe long-term side effects include:2,7
- Cardiac toxicity (e.g., irreversible heart inflammation, congestive heart failure).
- Respiratory damage (e.g., Goodpasture’s syndrome, emphysema).
- Liver and kidney damage.
- Bone marrow suppression/damage.
- Progressive neurological injury resulting in hearing loss, limb spasms, and loss of coordination.
- Delayed behavioral development.
- Anoxic brain damage (secondary to asphyxia or respiratory arrest).
Inhalant use can also lead to death via the following methods:3
- Suffocation (lack of oxygen due to inhaling fumes within a plastic bag placed over the head).
- Asphyxiation (high concentrations of inhaled fumes, which displace available oxygen in the lungs).
- Choking (in a setting of decreased consciousness and an unprotected/relaxed airway, potentially resulting in inhalation of vomit after inhalant use).
- Fatal injury (accidents suffered while intoxicated).
Inhalant Addiction and Dependence
According to data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, addiction is a compulsive drug use despite negative consequences. It’s characterized by a failure to meet work, family, and social obligations and an inability to stop using the drug. Addiction may entail not only physiological changes (such as tolerance and dependence) but several harmful behavioral changes adversely impacting every aspect of an individual’s life. Addiction development is accompanied by functional changes within the brain that can impact an individual’s drive, motivation, thought processes, and behaviors so much that drug use becomes prioritized over all else.10
Dependence is the physiological adaptation of the body to a substance, wherein the body becomes so used to the drug being present in the system that when the individual cuts back on their use or quits, withdrawal symptoms emerge. With significant levels of physiological dependence, a person may continue to compulsively drink or use drugs to avoid unwanted withdrawal symptoms.10
While relatively uncommon, use of inhalants can lead to addiction dependence, and withdrawal.2,11
Treating Inhalant Addiction and Withdrawal
Although there is no specific withdrawal syndrome to cover the entire class of inhalants, withdrawal symptoms may occur. Sometimes resembling sedative withdrawal, such symptoms may appear after using inhalants for as few as 3 months, and they usually last for roughly 2 to 5 days.11
While there are no medications or reversal agents available to specifically treat inhalant symptoms associated with withdrawal, supportive care (including lack of access to inhalants, proper sleep, and a healthy diet) is often sufficient for recovery.7,11
So how do you treat inhalant addiction?
Treatment for an inhalant use disorder can occur in a variety of settings including outpatient care (where patients attend counseling but live in their own residences) and inpatient treatment (which provides 24/7 care and supervision in a hospital or residential setting).10,11,12
Regardless of the type of program, strict abstinence from inhalant use is vital for recovery.7 Thus, removing access to any substances that can be misused from the home and personal space of a recovering person can assist in abstinence.
Additional assistance can be found in continued care or aftercare programs, which follow initial inpatient or outpatient treatment programs.10 Aftercare can be found in sober living homes, community-based programs such as Smart Recovery, and through a treatment program.
If you or a loved one is struggling with inhalant use, American Addiction Centers has several treatment facilities across the United States that can help. The road to recovery starts with a phone call. Contact our admissions navigators 24/7 to take your first step.