When most people think of drug abuse, they think of illegal substances like heroin, cocaine and LSD.
Would it surprise you to know that some of the most toxic substances abused by children and teens can be found in the home? Certain household and office products — including glue, shoe polish, gasoline and cleaning fluids — can cause intoxication when their vapors are inhaled.
Called “inhalants,” these vapors can have devastating side effects. If you’ve ever come across a smelly marker, you’ve experienced an inhalant. They seem harmless, but they can actually be quite dangerous, and pose a particularly significant problem because they are readily accessible, legal and inexpensive.
Inhalants are often among the first drugs that young adolescents abuse. In fact, they are one of the few classes of substances that are abused more by younger adolescents than older ones. Inhalant abuse can become chronic and continue into adulthood.
Data from national and state surveys suggest that inhalant abuse is most common among 7th through 9th graders. In 2012, 6.2% of 8th graders, 4.1% of 10th graders, and 2.9% of 12th graders reported abusing inhalants in the year prior to the survey.
One of the reasons may be that, according to the 2012 survey, nearly 66 percent of 8th graders don’t think trying inhalants once or twice is risky, and 41 percent don’t consider the regular use of inhalants to be harmful. Young teens may not understand the risks of inhalant use as well as they should.
The effect of huffing
When the chemical vapors released by inhalants are breathed in by nose or mouth (“huffing,” and “dusting” in the case of dust removers) they are absorbed by the lungs and travel rapidly through the blood to the brain and other organs.
In minutes, the user feels alcohol-like effects, such as slurred speech, clumsy movements, dizziness and euphoria. These effects usually last only a few minutes, but the user can extend them for hours by inhaling the vapors repeatedly. Successive inhalations can also break down inhibitions and self-control.
The vapors in inhalants contain chemicals that change the way the brain works, causing the user to feel happy for a short time. But these vapors often contain more than one chemical, which is why inhalants also have serious side effects, from headaches, nausea and vomiting to unconsciousness — or even death.
Many kids think inhalants are a harmless, cheap, and quick way to “catch a buzz.” Because many inhalants can be found around the house, kids may not even think they are harmful. But the chemicals in the inhalant vapors can change the way the brain works and cause other complications in the body. Some may leave the body quickly, but others are absorbed into fatty substances in the brain and nervous system, where they can stay for a long time — and in some cases, the harmful effects of inhalants can be irreversible.
>> Read one parent’s story: A message from a dad who lost his son to “dusting”
Some of the danger of inhalant abuse
One of these fatty substances is myelin — a protective cover that surrounds many of the body’s nerve cells. Nerve cells in your brain and spinal cord are sort of like “Command Central” for your body. They send and receive messages that control just about everything you think and do. If nerve cells are your body’s electrical wiring, then myelin is the rubber insulation that protects the electrical cords. The chemicals in inhalants can break down myelin. If myelin breaks down, nerve cells may not be able to transmit messages as effectively.
As a result, people taking inhalants may have trouble solving complex problems and planning ahead. They might start losing control over their movement and coordination, making them slow or clumsy. They also may lose the ability to learn new things or have a hard time keeping track of simple conversations.
Other health effects of inhalants
Inhalants can even be lethal. Sniffing highly concentrated amounts of the chemicals in solvents or aerosol sprays can directly cause heart failure within minutes. This syndrome, known as “sudden sniffing death syndrome,” can result from a single session of inhalant use by an otherwise healthy young person.
Some household products that can be inhaled:
- paint thinner
- nail polish remover
- dry-cleaning fluid
- contact cement/rubber cement
- correction fluid
- felt-tip marker fluid
- electronic contact cleaner
- computer dust spray
- spray paint
- hair spray
- deodorant spray
- vegetable oil sprays
- fabric protector spray
- Butane lighters
- propane tanks
- whipped cream dispensers
- refrigerant gases
Regular abuse of inhalants can also cause serious damage to major organs, including the brain, liver, heart, kidneys and lungs. A single session of repeated inhalations can lead to cardiac arrest and death by altering normal heart rhythms or by preventing oxygen from entering the lungs, causing suffocation.
High concentrations of inhalants may also cause death from suffocation, especially when inhaled from a paper or plastic bag or in a closed area. Even when using aerosols or volatile products for their legitimate purposes like painting or cleaning, it is wise to do so in a well-ventilated room or outdoors.
Nitrites are a special class of inhalants that are abused to enhance sexual pleasure and performance. They can be associated with unsafe sexual practices that increase the risk of contracting and spreading infectious diseases like HIV/AIDS and hepatitis.
Most common types of inhalants
There are three general types of inhalants. Solvents include paint thinners or removers, degreasers, dry-cleaning fluids, gasoline, glue, correction fluids and felt tip marker fluid.
Gas inhalants can be found in butane lighters and propane tanks, whipped cream aerosols or dispensers (whippets), spray paints, hair or deodorant sprays and fabric protector sprays.
The third type, nitrites, are commonly known as “poppers.” Most poppers contain the chemicals isobutyl nitrite or butyl nitrite. They are available illegally and come in small brown bottles, sometimes labeled as “video head cleaner,” room odorizer or liquid aroma.
Because the intoxication, or “high,” lasts only a few minutes, people who abuse inhalants often try to make the feeling last longer by inhaling repeatedly over several hours.
Common methods of huffing:
- “Sniffing” or “snorting” fumes from containers
- Spraying aerosols directly into the nose or mouth
- Inhaling substances sprayed into a plastic/paper bag (“bagging”)
- “Huffing” from an inhalant-soaked rag stuffed in the mouth
- Inhaling from balloons filled with nitrous oxide
How can you tell if someone is abusing inhalants?
Sometimes you can’t tell, but other times you might see small signs. For example, they might have chemical odors on their breath or clothing; paint or other stains on their face, hands, or clothing; nausea or loss of appetite; weight loss; muscle weakness; disorientation; or inattentiveness, uncoordinated movement, irritability, and depression.
It’s difficult to know how many emergency room visits and deaths inhalants cause. There are probably many more emergency room admissions due to inhalants than we know about. Inhalant use is easily hidden, and they leave the body quickly so they are long gone by the time someone gets to the emergency room.
Early identification and intervention remain the best ways to stop inhalant abuse before it causes serious health consequences. Parents should store household products carefully to prevent accidental inhalation by very young children, and should also remain aware of the temptations that these dangerous substances pose to children and teens in their homes.