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Inhalants: Symptoms and Effects of Abuse

Every year more and more middle school teens turn to household aerosols and other items with noxious chemicals to get high. Huffing inhalants comes with many serious consequences, including addiction. If your child is getting high sniffing glue, spray paint or other household items, get help now.


9 min read

Are Inhalants Dangerous?

Nitrous Oxide Bulbs

The term “inhalants” is used to describe toxic fumes derived from spraycans, gasoline and other items — some of which you may find in your own house. When users breathe in these fumes, they cause a short but intense sensation triggered by the brain. Because these items are in nearly every household and easy to access — and a single use can cause serious, even fatal injuries — inhalant abuse is one of the biggest drug threats among American teens. In 2014, 5.3% of 8th graders reported using inhalants in the past year, and 15.7% reported using them in their lifetime. Only alcohol, tobacco and marijuana are used by more kids in this age group — and only 1% of parents believe their teen has ever used inhalants.

Commonly Used Inhalants

Carbon dioxide Canisters - A common inhalant

Perhaps the most alarming thing about inhalants is that so many different products have the potential for misuse. These are items found in your bathroom, your garage, convenience stores and even in school supplies. It’s not feasible to keep every inhalant out of your child’s reach. For that reason, it’s vital to educate them and yourself on the different types of inhalants, and keep as many of these objects stored safely. In some cases, it may be better to not keep these items in the house at all.

The most common products used as inhalants are:

  • Aerosols – aerosol cans (tall, cylindrical bottles) that contain propellants and solvents. These include hairspray, deodorant spray, spray paints, fabric protectors, vegetable oil sprays and computer cleaning products.
  • Volatile solvents – industrial liquids and office supplies that vaporize at room temperature. These include paint thinner, degreaser, lighter fluid, gasoline, felt-tip marker fluid, correction fluid (i.e. white-out), electrical contact cleaner and glue.
  • Gases – found in commercial or household products and also used as medical anesthetics. These include propane tanks, butane lighters, refrigerant gases, whipped cream aerosols or dispensers (also called “whippets”), chloroform, ether, halothane and nitrous oxide (also called N2O, nitro, nitrous and “laughing gas”).
  • Nitrites – muscle-relaxing chemicals most often used as sexual enhancers. Organic nitrites include butyl, cyclohexyl and amyl nitrites. Amyl nitrites (also referred to as “poppers”) are sometimes used in diagnostic medical procedures. They can occasionally be found for sale in small brown bottles, marketed for illicit use, and labeled with descriptions such as “liquid aroma,” “leather cleaner” or “room odorizer” along with names like “Climax” or “Rush.”

According to a survey, inhalant users:

  • Aged 12–15 most commonly use shoe polish, glue, gasoline or spray paint
  • Aged 16–17 most commonly use whippets and nitrous oxide
  • 18 and older most commonly abuse poppers

The hazardous chemicals most often found in inhalants are:

  • Benzene (gasoline)
  • Freon (propellant and refrigerant)
  • Butane (lighter fluid, hairspray)
  • Methylene chloride (paint thinner, degreaser)
  • Toluene (paint remover, gasoline, correction fluid)
  • Trichloroethylene (spot removers, degreasers)

Symptoms of Inhalant Abuse

Physical evidence and behavioral changes are usually the clearest indicators of an inhalant problem. Some of the symptoms related to inhalants draw comparisons to alcohol intoxication. If your teen is using inhalants, the signs may not appear all at once. But if you identify any of the following symptoms, it may warrant further investigation. Symptoms of inhalant use can include:

  • Slurred speech
  • Glassy eyes
  • Stumbling and/or dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Poor muscle coordination
  • Mood changes

You may discover evidence in your child’s bedroom, laundry, school supplies, garbage can or even on their physical self. Physical evidence or paraphernalia of inhalant abuse might include:

  • Empty aerosol bottles
  • Random plastic bags or balloons
  • Used markers or glue bottles
  • Noxious items missing from your house
  • Unusual packages or bottles
  • Stains or odors on clothing

Research over the years has shown a correlation between eating disorders and inhalant abuse. If you notice worrisome eating habits and changing weight, an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia could also be in play. In general, around half of teen substance abuse and addiction cases involve a co-occurring mental disorder. This can range from adolescent bipolar disorder to depressive disorders to ADHD.

Dually diagnosed drug and mental health disorders demand an added level of attention and a special approach to treatment.

Effects of Inhalant Abuse

The availability of inhalants may dampen how their risks are perceived — they can legally be bought at the store for next to nothing after all. The side effects of inhalant abuse impact both the body and mind in small and big ways.

Effects on the Brain

The majority of popular inhalants work by slowing down brain activity, moments after they’re inhaled and absorbed into the bloodstream. Within seconds, users are overcome with an intoxicating feeling that might include lightheadedness, loss of coordination, intense euphoria (i.e. a strong sense of happiness) and even hallucinations or delusions (i.e. sensing or believing things that aren’t real).

Some of these hazardous chemicals get absorbed by the brain’s fatty tissue, causing them to linger for a prolonged amount of time. Inhalants damage the brain when the chemicals linger in the brain — especially as they build up with repeated use — long enough to affect nerve fibers and brain cells. This can lead to side effects such as:

  • Muscle spasms
  • Tremors
  • Learning deficiencies
  • Impaired conversation skills
  • Trouble walking or bending the body
  • Slowed movement
  • Difficulty solving problems
  • Clumsy behavior
  • Blackouts

Effects on the Body

Huffing and other forms of inhalant abuse attack the body in two ways: the chemicals being ingested and the method of use. In recent years, ER visits and deaths have resulted from extreme complications related to inhalant use, involving things such as:

  • Choking from the inhalation of vomit
  • Asphyxiation due to displaced oxygen in the lungs
  • Suffocation caused by blocking air from entering the lungs
  • Seizures or convulsions due to abnormal electrical charges to the brain
  • Coma resulting from the brain shutting down
  • Fatal injuries and accidents, including car crashes, suffered while intoxicated

Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome — mostly involving butane, propane and aerosol chemicals — results from rapid and irregular heart rhythms. This can kill an otherwise healthy user within minutes of heavy inhalant intake.

The other physical risks of inhalant abuse vary based on the chemical and how much is inhaled over time. These side effects can include:

  • Muscle weakness
  • Chronic pain
  • Liver or kidney damage
  • Reduced production of blood cells
  • Weakened immune system
  • Reproductive complications
  • Loss of feeling in parts of the body
  • Hearing and vision loss
  • Leukemia

Addiction and Withdrawal

A teenager using inhalant drugs

Addiction to inhalants is indeed possible, on both a physical and psychological level. In one study, more than 11% of teens using inhalants experienced the signs and symptoms of withdrawal — a painful series of side effects when the body no longer receives something. Because the high from inhalants is so short-lived — only a matter of seconds — many users have a strong need to continue using, and use them over and over. The more somebody breathes in these fumes, the higher their chances are of developing a mild dependency or experiencing withdrawal symptoms as soon as they stop.

Inhalant withdrawal symptoms can include:

  • Headaches
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Runny eyes or nose
  • Fatigue
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Trembling or twitching
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Depressed mood
  • Anxiety

If your teen has an addiction to inhalants, you need to address the situation immediately. Each time they use, they run the risk of overdosing or suffering irreversible damage to their brain. Kids may be under the impression that inhalants are safe compared to harder illicit drugs, if only because they’re legal. This same misconception is what drives thousands of middle and high schoolers to over-the-counter and teen prescription drug abuse — with increasingly tragic results.

Facts About Inhalant Abuse

Used spray-can bottles

The popularity of inhalants peaked in 1995, when nearly 13% of 8th graders had experimented with these substances within that year. Awareness of the side effects has spread tremendously since then, and several of the products misused as inhalants have been restricted for purchase by adults only. But tens of thousands of young people still abuse inhalants each day — nearly 23 million Americans have used them at some point in their lives — and up to 200 deaths each year result from inhalant use. Approximately 22% of people who die from Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome are first-time users.

If not inhaled directly through the nose (i.e. sniffed or snorted), inhalants are sprayed or poured on a rag, then held up to the face and breathed in through the nose and mouth simultaneously. This process is called “huffing.” In many cases, users will fill plastic bags or balloons with the substances, and then suck in the fumes that way. This is especially common with nitrous oxide — which also has the street name “hippy crack,” and is a popular way to get high at concerts and music festivals. Using a paper or plastic bag to take inhalants is also called “bagging.”

Does My Teen Need Rehab Treatment?

If you notice signs of inhalant abuse in your teen, speak with a treatment professional about how to handle the situation. Some struggling teens are able to kick their inhalant abuse with support from family and other substance abuse treatment options. In other cases, rehab may be necessary for your teen.

Addiction treatment experts are well-acquainted with the different types of rehab, and who benefits most from each one. Generally speaking, your teen may require either inpatient or outpatient drug rehab treatment. Each has its own set of benefits, and a professional can determine which will work best for your teen.

We at can meet you wherever you are in your journey towards finding wellness for your child. We can guide you in everything from assessing your teen’s substance abuse situation to finding treatment, if need be. Our help is always free and always confidential. Make a positive change in your family life today. Just give us a call.


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