What Are Inhalants?

Although other abused drugs can be inhaled, the term inhalants is reserved for the wide variety of substances—including solvents, aerosols, gases, and nitrites—that are rarely, if ever, taken via any other route of administration. (See below for a list of examples.)

Many products readily found in the home or workplace—such as spray paints, markers, glues, and cleaning fluids—contain volatile substances that have psychoactive (mind-altering) properties when inhaled. People do not typically think of these products as drugs because they were never intended for that purpose. However, these products are sometimes abused in that way. They are primarily (but not exclusively) used by young children and adolescents and are the only substance abused more by younger than older teens.

How Are Inhalants Abused?

Abusers of inhalants breathe them in through the nose or mouth in various ways (known as “huffing”). They may sniff or snort fumes from a container or dispenser (such as a glue bottle or a marking pen), spray aerosols (such as computer cleaning dusters) directly into their nose or mouth, or place a chemical-soaked rag in their mouth. Abusers may also inhale fumes from a balloon, plastic, or paper bag. Although the high produced by inhalants usually lasts just a few minutes, abusers often try to prolong it by repeatedly inhaling over several hours.
People tend to abuse different inhalant products at different ages. New users age 12–15 most commonly abuse glue, shoe polish, spray paints, gasoline, and lighter fluid. New users ages 16–17 most commonly abuse nitrous oxide or “whippets.” Adults most commonly abuse inhalants known as nitrites (such as amyl nitrites or “poppers”).

How Do Inhalants Effect the Brain?

Most abused inhalants other than nitrites depress the central nervous system in a manner not unlike alcohol. The effects are similar—including slurred speech, lack of coordination, euphoria, and dizziness. Inhalant abusers may also experience light-headedness, hallucinations, and delusions. With repeated inhalations, many users feel less inhibited and less in control. Some may feel drowsy for several hours and experience a lingering headache.
Unlike other inhalants, nitrites enhance sexual pleasure by dilating and relaxing blood vessels. Although it is uncommon, inhalant addiction can occur with repeated abuse.

What Are the Other Health Effects of Inhalants?

Chemicals found in different types of inhaled products may produce a variety of other short-term effects, such as nausea or vomiting, as well as more serious long-term consequences. These may include liver and kidney damage, hearing loss, or bone marrow damage. Effects may also include loss of coordination and limb spasms due to damage to myelin—a protective sheathing around nerve fibers that helps nerves transmit messages in the brain and peripheral nervous system. Inhalants can also cause brain damage by cutting off oxygen flow to the brain.
Inhalants can even be lethal. Sniffing highly concentrated chemicals in solvents or aerosol sprays can cause heart failure within minutes. This syndrome, known as “sudden sniffing death,” can result from a single session of inhalant use by an otherwise healthy young person. 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 legitimate purposes like painting or cleaning, it is wise to do so in a well-ventilated room or outdoors.
Nitrites are a particular inhalant class used 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.

Products Abused as Inhalants:

Volatile solvents - liquids that vaporize at room temperature

Nitrites - used primarily as sexual enhancers