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The Effects of Inhalant Use

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Are Inhalants Harmful?

There are a huge number of inhalants available for abuse, and they’re fairly easy to obtain. It’s unsurprising that teens in particular are susceptible to inhalant abuse, simply because these compounds can be obtained from any supermarket or store. So what are inhalants?

  • Inhalants are compounds that can be breathed in without smoking or using heat to vaporize them.
  • They tend to be gases at room temperature or, if liquid or solid, emit an inhalable vapor.

This makes them different from nicotine or marijuana, which in most cases have to be combusted prior to use.

spray paint canAs you may expect, the concept of inhalants covers a variety of substances, but these drugs typically are classified as one of four types:

  • Volatile solvents or fuels.
  • Medical gases (e.g. nitrous oxide)
  • Aerosols
  • Alkyl nitrites

Solvents cover a wide range of compounds from nail varnish remover (acetone or ethyl acetate) to methyl acetate in glue. They’re also present in a wide range of cleaning compounds. Aerosols are found in pressurized cans; they used to be CFCs, but now they’re the more environmentally friendly butane or propane.

Medical gases tend to be ethers and nitrous oxides, but nitrous oxide is also found in whipped cream as a propellant. These three all have effects on the central nervous system.

Alkyl nitrites are slightly different. They’re often sold as air fresheners in clubs, and they come in little vials that have to be popped, hence the term “poppers.” They relax smooth muscle directly when they’re in the blood stream, creating a rush and dilating blood vessels. These are more popular with 20-somethings than teens.

Short-Term Effects of Inhalants

Most inhalants are short-acting CNS depressants, and the ones that aren’t closely mimic the effects of CNS depressants.

Generally, people experience mild highs that last for a short time — normally in the order of minutes — so they tend to be taken repeatedly to extend the high.

Hallucinations may accompany large doses of certain inhalants – particularly medical gases like nitrous oxide, commonly found in whipped cream cans.

To help an Inhalant addict, call our 24/7 hotline at for more information.

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Side Effects

The side effects are, again, what you’d expect from depressants:

  • Stumbling.
  • Vomiting.
  • spasmodic reactions.
  • Hallucinations.
  • Appearance of being high.
  • Unresponsiveness to stimuli.
  • Rashes around the mouth where the inhalant has blistered the skin.

Long-Term Effects of Inhalants

Like many drugs, inhalant abuse can result in death, and it doesn’t have to be long-term abuse that causes it.


Sudden sniffing death can occur even after just one use – volatile compounds cross from the lungs into the bloodstream, and can lead to:

  • Loss of consciousness.
  • Widespread cellular damage from lack of oxygen.
  • Cardiac arrest.
  • Neuromuscular toxicity.
  • Brain damage.
  • Liver and kidney damage.

These effects can manifest as sudden muscle weakness and/or spasticity as well as signs of prolonged central nervous depression. Sensation on the hands and feet can diminish, and the drugs may possibly cause pins-and-needles sensations.

Inhalant Dependence

A few, but not all of the inhalants, like many abused substances, demonstrate a measurable tolerance to their effects. Additionally, and not surprisingly, some degree of dependency to the inhalants is also seen. Some of the inhalants–tetracholoroethylene or TCE, for example–produces severe excitatory withdrawal symptoms if you stop using the drug.

If you’ve tried to quit but suffer from serious withdrawal symptoms, you likely are suffering from dependence. This means you need to seek help as soon as you realize you cannot manage your life without inhalants.

Inhalant Withdrawal Treatment

Non-medicated withdrawal can, in some cases, lead to an unpleasant withdrawal syndrome. Because of the severe health consequences that may accumulate over the course of prolonged inhalant abuse, and because of the risk of excitatory withdrawal effects, a medically supervised withdrawal period can not only make the process much more comfortable, but safer. Medical supervision can help monitor the effects that inhalant withdrawal can have on you, and mitigate the unpleasant withdrawal effects.

Typically, inhalant addiction treatment is made up of three main stages:

  1. The first stage, detox, is the process of getting you off inhalants in a safe manner. Usually, you’ll be withdrawn from the inhalants immediately. You’ll likely notice symptoms of withdrawal within 8 to 24 hours, depending on how accustomed your body is to inhalants. You may be prescribed a mild sedative to make the process easier, although some centers insist on a natural withdrawal process.
  2. Counseling is the next stage of care. You’ll likely be asked about various aspects of your life, be encouraged to learn facts about inhalant abuse, and discover how inhalant abuse has affected your life. This process is about understanding why you took drugs and teaching you methods of avoiding inhalant abuse in the future.
  3. The final stage of treatment is keeping clean as you go about your day-to-day business. In some cases. Referral to a sober living home is an option to help you adjust to life outside the clinic. In other cases, you’ll be encouraged to attend a 12-step program or peer support group to help you stay clean.

To learn more about treatment, call today. Our caring treatment support specialists can advise you of programs that can help you take your life back from addiction.

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Patrick Condron, M.Sc., M.A.C., is an addiction specialist and drug and alcohol counselor. He is Executive Director of Lazarus House, Inc., a transitional residential program for men and women who continue to work on their recovery towards independent living.
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