What are inhalants?
Inhalants and solvents are chemicals found in household products such as glue, dry cleaning fluids, gasoline, and others. The fumes or vapors are inhaled (or “huffed”) for their mood-altering effects. Sometimes they are sprayed in a paper bag or soaked in a rag that is then placed over the mouth and nose. These chemicals are not meant to be intentionally inhaled and the packaging often contains warnings. They can cause serious damage to the body and organs, and inhalant use can even lead to death with just one use.
There are four main categories of inhalants:
- Volatile solvents: These include paint thinners and removers, dry-cleaning fluids, gasoline, glues, correction fluids, and felt-tip marker fluids.
- Aerosols: These are found in spray paints, deodorant and hair sprays, vegetable oil sprays for cooking, and fabric protector sprays.
- Gases: Medical anesthetic gases include ether, chloroform, and nitrous oxide (or “laughing gas”). Other products containing gases include butane lighters, propane tanks, whipped cream dispensers, and refrigerants.
- Nitrites: These are often considered a special class of inhalants and are known as “poppers” or “snappers.” Various types of nitrites are still legally sold for recreational use, while others are illegally manufactured, or only available by prescription.
How does inhalant use affect the brain?
The effects of inhalants are similar to those of alcohol, including slurred speech, lack of coordination, euphoria, and dizziness. Inhalant users may also experience lightheadedness, hallucinations, and delusions. Inhalants deprive the body of oxygen, a condition known as hypoxia. Hypoxia can damage cells throughout the body, but the cells of the brain are especially sensitive to it. Someone who repeatedly uses inhalants may loose the ability to learn new things or may have a hard time carrying on simple conversations. Other effects from inhalants can be lethal or irreversible.
Because inhalants can be found in everyday household products, many people don’t consider them to be dangerous. However, most inhalants are toxic and can cause long-lasting damage or death.
The American Psychiatric Association (APA) uses the term “inhalant use disorder” to define a pattern of inhalant use that leads to significant physical, interpersonal, medical, or work problems. Inhalant use disorder is rated as mild, moderate, or severe based on how many criteria are met. A person diagnosed with inhalant use disorder can also be classified as in remission, or what is commonly referred to as “in recovery.” Those with inhalant use disorder should receive treatment, and those who identify themselves as addicts often find the skills and support to stay sober through peer support groups like Narcotics Anonymous.
Addiction is considered a brain-based disease characterized by abnormal drug-seeking behavior that leads to impaired control over one’s drug use. Addiction means a person will continue using drugs like inhalants despite the harm it does to their health, family, work or school, and relationships. An addict may experience withdrawal symptoms (physical pain, fatigue, depression, trouble sleeping, irritability) if he or she stops using, and may need to keep using just to feel normal. “Curing” addiction is not a matter of willpower or moral strength any more than is curing diabetes or cancer. Like diabetes and cancer, addiction is considered a chronic disease which is beyond one’s control and fatal if left untreated.
How does inhalant use affect a co-occurring mental health disorder?
Co-occurring disorders, or dual disorders, occur when a mental health disorder, like depression or schizophrenia, is present along with addiction, alcoholism, or other substance use disorders. Screening for co-occurring disorders should be part of any good assessment or treatment plan.
Many people with a mental health problem turn to substances to feel better. For example, a person who is depressed may turn to inhalants to feel better. Because the euphoria is brief, the person will probably repeat the usage, increasing the risk for addiction, overdose, and even death. What’s more, the symptoms of inhalant use can mask and mimic mental health symptoms. Inhalant-induced hallucinations, for example, might be mistaken for signs of schizophrenia— resulting in ineffective treatment.
Is addiction to inhalants widespread?
Addiction to inhalants is rare, but can happen with frequent use. In a 2008 study, 0.1 percent of individuals admitted to substance abuse treatment reported addiction to inhalants as their primary substance of abuse. However, most individuals who report inhalant use as their primary substance were ages 12 to 15. Although not necessarily a “gateway” drug, inhalants are found in household products, which are more available and tend to be the first drugs young people are exposed to.
Addiction won’t go away, like a cold or the flu. It is a chronic disease, meaning you have it all your life. However, by staying sober and getting ongoing support, recovering people live normal, healthy, productive lives.
There are many resources out there. The websites for the following organizations were chosen for their usefulness and user friendliness.
National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA): This government organization is dedicated to addiction research and education. Through its website you can access up-to-date publications about many different drugs of abuse as well as emerging trends.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): SAMHSA is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Its mission is to reduce the impact of substance abuse and mental illness on America’s communities. Its website offers information and resources about preventing and treating addiction and mental illness.