Inhalants are increasingly in the news, although many people including safety directors may not be as familiar with this type of recreational drug as other better-known drugs. Inhalants are a diverse group of volatile substances or fumes from products that users sniff or inhale to get high. These may be products that are readily available for other purposes (such as spray paint).
Typically inhalants fall into one of four categories:
- Volatile solvents (paint thinners, gasoline, lighter fluid, art supply solvents, etc.)
- Aerosols (spray paint, hair spray, etc.)
- Gasses (propane, whipped cream aerosols (whippets), refrigerant gasses)
- Nitrites ("poppers," amyl nitrite, etc.)
Inhalants affect the brain quickly to produce psychoactive (mind-altering) effects. The high resembles alcohol intoxication. The appeal of inhalants may involve their rapid onset of action and the fact that readily available, legal, inexpensive agents can be used to get high.
Some individuals whose work exposes them to these substances may become abusers. These people may not deliberately set out to abuse any agent, but general contact or access to such substances may eventually lead them to experiment with and eventually abuse inhalants.
The effects of inhalants do not usually last longer than a few minutes. Unfortunately, this short-lived high leads users to repeat exposure, sometimes for as long as several hours, greatly increasing their risk of brain and other nervous system damage.
While inhalant abuse is often considered a teen problem, the truth is that people of all ages are at risk for inhalant abuse. A government study recently showed that more than half (54%) of treatment admissions related to inhalants abuse in 2008 involved adults ages 18 or older. According to the latest figures from SAMHSA's National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 1.1 million adults abused inhalants last year.
Some of the potential effects and risks of inhalant use include
- Slurred speech
- Lack of coordination
- Loss in control
- Lingering headache
- Nausea or vomiting
- Hypoxia (suffocation, asphyxiation) leading to brain or other organ damage
- Muscle spasms and tremors
- Liver, lung, and kidney problems
- Muscle weakness
Prolonged abuse can result in:
- Negative effects to a person's cognition, movement, vision, and hearing
- Fatal injuries from falls
- Death from choking on vomit
- Heart attack from irregular or rapid heartbeat
"Sudden sniffing death" may also occur when inhalation of a substance produces heart failure and immediate death. Sudden sniffing death has been reported with prolonged and even with first-time use.
"Just a single session of repeated inhalations can cause permanent organ damage or death," stated Dr. David Shurtleff, acting deputy director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), part of the National Institutes of Health. Research has shown that most inhalants are extremely toxic. Chronic users of inhalants can develop irreversible damage to the brain, kidneys and lungs as well as death. Chronic inhalant abusers may permanently lose the ability to perform everyday functions like walking, talking, and thinking.
There are many potential inhalants and a very long list of street names for these substances. "Bagging" and "huffing" are the slang terms for abusing inhalants. Here are some names for the inhalants themselves (find more here)
- Air blast
- Bullet bolt
- Hippie crack
- Moon gas
- Satan's secret
- Texas shoe shine
Find out more information about inhalant abuse here.