The category of inhalants includes a wide variety of common substances that are abused by breathing in their vapors or fumes to experience mind-altering effects, such as light-headedness, impaired coordination, dizziness, and lowered inhibitions. Hundreds of substances, including aerosols, gases, nitrates, and volatile solvents, are included within the general category of inhalants.
- Aerosols: This sub-category includes hairspray, spray paint, and similar products that contain propellants and solvents.
- Gases: Commonly abused substances in this sub-category include propane, butane, chloroform, and nitrous oxide.
- Nitrites: The two most popular nitrates, amyl and butyl, are most commonly abused to enhance sexual experiences.
- Volatile solvents: This sub-category includes liquids that vaporize when they reach room temperature. Examples include adhesives, paint thinner, cleaning fluids, and lacquer.
Inhalant abuse is an extremely dangerous behavior that can lead to a wide range of potentially debilitating outcomes. Treatment should be sought if you or a loved one is struggling with an inhalants abuse.
Most cases of inhalant abuse involve adolescents and teenagers, though adults also engage in this dangerous practice. Experts estimate that about 20 percent of all young people in the United States will abuse an inhalant at least once before they graduate from high school. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NS-DUH), about 60,000 adults abuse inhalants every year as well. Furthermore, the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) has reported that inhalant abuse is responsible for about 10,000 annual emergency room visits in the United States.
Causes and Risk Factors for Inhalant Abuse
Substance abuse and addiction can be caused by a variety of internal and external factors, and it is usually the result of a combination of influences. Mental health experts who have studied the genesis of addiction have identified several genetic and environmental precursors, including the following:
Genetic: Family history is one of the strongest predictors of whether or not a person will develop a problem with inhalants or other forms of substance abuse. Having a parent or sibling who has had a substance use disorder puts a person at increased risk for a similar problem. In recent years, scientists have identified several genes and gene clusters that appear to influence a person’s potential for developing a substance use disorder.
Environmental: Young people who have been abused or neglected may choose to abuse inhalants because they are easily accessible. When this occurs, both the abuse/neglect and the access to inhalants are environmental influences on the behavior. Other environmental factors include poor parental oversight, exposure to chronic stress, living in poverty, and associating with others who abuse drugs.
- Being a teenager
- Prior substance abuse
- Family history of substance abuse, addiction, and/or mental illness
- Child abuse and/or neglect
- Early exposure to substance abuse
- Low self-esteem
- Living in poverty
Signs and Symptoms of Inhalant Abuse
With literally hundreds of substances in the category of inhalants, the signs and symptoms that may indicate their abuse can vary widely in terms of appearance, duration, and severity. However, the following are among common signs that may indicate that a person is struggling with a compulsion to abuse an inhalant or several inhalants:
- Slurred speech
- Swaying and/or stumbling
- Engaging in risky, dangerous behaviors
- Having large amounts of glue, aerosols, paint, or other inhalants
- Lying about one’s whereabouts and activities
- Watery eyes and runny nose
- Sores near the mouth
- Muscle weakness
- Irregular heartbeat
- Breathing problems
- Emitting a chemical or gas-like odor
- Impaired coordination
- Inability to concentrate
- Poor judgment
- Unprovoked agitation or anger
- Inability to experience pleasure
- Loss of interest in activities and issues that were previously important
- Excitability and restlessness
Effects of Inhalant Abuse
The damage that can result from inhalant abuse may vary widely depending upon the type of inhalant being abused and the amount of abuse that has occurred. The following are among the common effects that have been linked to inhalant abuse
- Damage to the brain, kidneys, and liver
- Cardiovascular problems
- Hearing loss
- Muscle atrophy
Many adolescents and adults who abuse inhalants are also dealing with an additional mental health challenge, including one or more of the following common co-occurring disorders:
- Anxiety disorders
- Bipolar disorder
- Major depressive disorder
- Persistent depressive disorder
- Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)
Effects of Withdrawal and Overdose
Effects of inhalant withdrawal: For people who have been engaging in long-term inhalant abuse, abruptly stopping or significantly reducing this practice can lead to a number of unpleasant withdrawal symptoms, including the following:
- Intense cravings
- Excessive sweating
- Abdominal cramping
- Agitation and irritability
- Powerful headaches
- Tremors and convulsions
Effects of inhalant overdose: Abusing inhalants is always accompanied by the risk of overdose, which is a potentially lethal experience. Anyone who exhibits the following signs after abusing an inhalant is in need of immediate medical attention:
- Bleeding from the nose
- Irregular heartbeat
- Severe trouble breathing