Drugs classified as inhalants are chemical vapors that are inhaled to produce an intoxicating effect. Inhalants often come in the form of everyday household products, such as aerosols or solvents. Examples of such products include paint, glue, gasoline and cleaning fluids. Many people don’t even consider inhalants to be drugs because of their harmless purpose, but deliberately inhaling the fumes of these products to produce a high can be incredibly dangerous.
The effect produced by inhaling these vapors is different depending on the type of inhalant used. Inhalants can be divided into four categories: volatile solvents, aerosols, gases and nitrites.
Volatile solvents are liquids that turn to vapor when exposed to air and are found in some household products such as paint thinners, solvents, craft cement, correction fluids, and felt-tip pens. They may contain chemicals such as toluene, chlorinated hydrocarbon and methylene chloride.
Aerosols, which contain substances called propellants, include spray paint cans and deodorants. Gases are present in some commercial products such as lighters (which contain benzene) and whipped cream cans (which contain nitrous oxide). Nitrites are a class of inhalants primarily used to enhance the sexual experience and include amyl nitrite, originally used by doctors to treat chest pain and still sometimes used today for heart tests.
Inhalant users inhale the vapors of these products by snorting them directly into the container, which is literally like spraying an aerosol directly into the mouth or nose, by inhaling the vapors from a substance in a plastic bag (called bagging), by placing a cloth soaked in an inhalant liquid in the mouth and breathing it in (called huffing), or by inhaling nitrous oxide (or laughing gas) from balloons.
The euphoria experienced with inhalants is very brief, often lasting only a few minutes, so the intoxication is repeated several times over a period of time to prolong the effect. This procedure can have devastating effects on the body and lead to sudden death, a phenomenon called Sudden Inhalation Death Syndrome.
Inhalants are found in a wide range of household products such as aerosols, cleaning fluids, lighters and other gasoline cans and solvents, including glue. Consumers of inhalants have given these substances various street names and also refer to them by terms that refer to the way they are consumed.
Nitrous oxide is commonly referred to as laughing gas. Amyl nitrite and butyl nitrite are sold illicitly on the street under a variety of aliases; they are most often referred to as “poppers,” but are also marketed as “liquid aroma,” “leather cleaner” and “video head cleaner. They are usually sold in small brown bottles, most often in sex shops. Butyl nitrite is also called “snappers”.
The gas cartridges in whipped cream cans are sometimes called “whippets.” “Bold” and “rush” are street names for various nitrites.
The effect produced by inhaling an inhalant is similar to the intoxicating effect caused by alcohol, often involving loss of coordination, difficulty speaking, brief euphoria and dizziness. Users may experience dizziness and hallucinations. Repeated inhalation can cause disinhibition, drowsiness and severe headaches. Depending on the chemicals in an inhalant, users may also experience severe nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, disorientation and confusion, and may lose consciousness.
When breathed in, inhalants pull air out of the lungs, causing oxygen deprivation known in medical jargon as “hypoxia”, which can lead to unconsciousness and suffocation. Oxygen deprivation damages every cell in the body, especially the brain. People who use inhalants regularly may experience memory loss and learning difficulties.
Taking inhalants over a long period of time can destroy the myelin in the body. Myelin is the fatty tissue that surrounds nerve fibers and its breakdown can damage the nerves, causing muscle spasms and compromising motor function, including the ability to walk and talk.
Chemicals can have many different effects on the body when inhaled. Some chemicals in paint cans and correction fluids can cause deafness, others in aerosols and glues can damage the brain and central nervous system, and inhalation of gasoline fumes can damage bone marrow. The liver and kidneys can also be damaged by inhaling chemicals in some household products.
Inhalation of chemicals in aerosols or solvents can lead to heart attacks and death within minutes of repeated inhalation.
Inhalants are present in a wide range of commercial household and industrial products. They therefore come from almost every industrialized country in the world.
The chemical industry has always been, and remains, concentrated in the regions of Western Europe, North America and Japan. The European Community is the largest producer of household chemicals, followed by the United States and Japan.
Europe is the largest producer of aerosols in the world, followed by the United States. It is estimated that over 12 billion aerosols are produced worldwide each year.
The global solvent market is growing rapidly, driven by increasing consumption of automotive, electronics and medical products and a rise in demand for solvent-based products in the emerging markets of Latin America, Eastern Europe, East Asia and the Middle East.
In a growing concern for the environment, the use of chlorinated solvents, present in some inhalants, has been restricted.
Europe also dominates solvent production, with a 26.5% market share of the solvent industry in 2010.
Solvent production has, like the aerosol industry, been affected by the concern for environmental protection. The paint industry, a sector traditionally associated with chemical solvents, is increasingly looking at developing powder and water-based paints to replace those containing solvents. Nevertheless, due to the rising demand for solvent-based paints in the aforementioned emerging markets in Asia and elsewhere, where environmental restrictions are less restrictive, production remains high worldwide.
The world’s largest solvent producers include BASF SE, BP Plc, Eastman Chemical Company, Exxon and Shell Chemicals.
In the aerosol manufacturing sector, the big names include BOC Speciality Gases, AvantiGas, GlaxoSmithKline and Unilever UK.
FACTS AND STATISTICS
Inhalants are often the first drugs experimented with by youth because of their presence in common household products and the false image of relative safety. Sniffing or inhaling the chemicals in these products can have devastating physical and psychological effects, cause irreversible damage to the body and result in death. Here are some key facts about inhalants.
- Inhalants are chemical vapors inhaled to produce psychotropic effects.
- Inhalants can be in the form of aerosols, gases, solvents or nitrites.
- They are found in many household products such as aerosols, glue, gasoline cans, cleaning fluids and paints.
- Chemicals can be sniffed directly into the product container or decanted into a bag, balloon or soaked in a cloth for inhalation.
- Sniffing aerosols can cause sudden death.
- Inhalants damage the brain, causing memory loss, decreasing the ability to learn new things, and preventing proper walking or talking.
- The high from inhalants lasts for a very short time, which leads to more inhalant use.
- Inhalant use can damage nerves to the point where you can’t control your movements.
- Inhalant use can damage the heart, lungs, kidneys and liver.
- Repeatedly sniffing inhalants can lead to suffocation as the chemicals draw air out of the lungs, depriving the body of oxygen.
- Inhalants are addictive because the body develops a tolerance to the chemicals over time, causing the user to inhale more and more to reproduce the same effect.
There are over 1400 commercial products that can be inhaled to produce psychotropic effects.
Studies conducted around the world show that most inhalant users are between 12 and 17 years old. Studies in America have shown that about 15% of 12-13 year olds, 12% of 15-16 year olds and 10% of 17-18 year olds have used inhalants.
In 2001, 18.2 million Americans admitted to using inhalants at least once.
A British study showed that occasional users of inhalants were exposed to the same dangerous effects as regular users, with 200 out of 1000 deaths involving first-time inhalant users.
Inhalants are the third most commonly used substance by adolescents.
Approximately 55% of inhalant-related deaths were due to a phenomenon called Sudden Inhalation Death Syndrome, in which the heart can suddenly stop beating as a result of inhaling toxic chemicals.
About 15% of inhalant-related deaths are attributed to suffocation or choking as a result of inhaling some liquid, including the victim’s own vomit, into the lungs.
According to studies, children as young as 12 are more likely to have tried inhalants than cigarettes or marijuana.
In America in 2008, more than half of inhalant treatment admissions involved adults 18 years or older, about 72% were male, 62% had gone to high school and 72% were white.
SIGNS OF ADDICTION
There are a variety of ways to determine if a person is a regular inhalant user. Her clothes, body or breath may have a sickeningly sweet chemical smell. They may have red, irritated skin around the nostrils, frequent nosebleeds or redness around the nose or mouth.
A person who uses inhalants may show no interest in food and may end up losing weight. He or she may have pale, almost blue skin and eyes that are often bloodshot and watery, with dilated pupils. A person who stammers, speaks unusually slowly, and is uncoordinated or seems clumsy may show signs of inhalant use.
Other signs of inhalant dependence include short-term memory loss, violent mood swings, uncontrollable shaking and sudden excitement or aggression. If a person vomits regularly, this may be another sign of inhalant addiction.
In addition to the physical signs of inhalant addiction that manifest themselves physically or through behavior, there are other signs that may indicate inhalant use. These may include frequent traces of paint or glue on a person’s hands, face or clothing or the presence of empty containers of products that can be used as inhalants, such as paint cans, glue tubes, etc. An inhalant user may have an unusually large collection of felt-tip pens or have bottles of nail polish with no evidence of their intended use.
Used and discarded plastic bags containing leftover inhalants may also be found in the bedroom or in the pockets of a person using inhalants.
A person who becomes psychologically dependent on the effects of inhalants should seek help immediately because their body may be irreversibly damaged or even killed. The withdrawal symptoms of inhalants may be considered less powerful than those of many drugs, but many people will feel an overwhelming urge to use inhalants again so that they can reproduce the euphoria to which they have become addicted. The desire to continue using inhalants to experience their psychoactive effects can last for a very long time, creating a high risk of relapse.
As with most addictions, the underlying reasons why a person is seeking to change their state of mind most often need to be addressed and this will most certainly be a central part of supporting a person addicted to inhalants.
There are a number of options available to those seeking help for an inhalant addiction and many are particularly aimed at young people, among whom inhalant use tends to be prevalent, for example, detox “boarding schools” where teenagers can receive ongoing therapeutic care.
The sector of society most likely to use inhalants are adolescents, and therefore there are particular problems that tend to be associated with this age group that need to be addressed in inhalant addiction treatment. These include, for example, a chaotic or fragmented family life, problems at school and a lack of self-esteem. Because inhalant use often goes hand in hand with other problems in the user’s life, some rehab programs do not admit people whose drug problem involves inhalants.
When treating a person who has become addicted to inhalants, it is first essential to determine exactly what substances they have been breathing in order to treat the physical effects of each. A thorough medical examination is therefore performed. The toxic chemicals in inhalants can remain in the body for several weeks, so detoxification programs can take more than a month.
Psychological therapy to address the root cause of a person’s inhalant use can only begin once the body shows that it has fully eliminated the inhalant chemicals.
Therapy usually takes several months and sometimes up to two years. People who are used to using inhalants often have a short attention span and have difficulty processing complex thoughts. The first therapy sessions are therefore very short, lasting about 15 to 20 minutes. In the detoxification centers that offer stays for inhalant users, there are naturally no products that can be consumed and solvent-free and non-aerosol products are used instead as often as possible. In addition, people undergoing such therapy must be closely monitored by clinical staff and family members.
Inhalant use is often a group activity, so an inhalant user should be encouraged to find new, drug-free friends. Long-term support and medical follow-up are just as important as ensuring that the person finds new forms of entertainment. Education is also an important part of inhalant use treatment and prevention, as many users become addicted to the drug without being aware of the damage it does to their brain and body.