Inhalants are chemical vapors that are breathed in on purpose to get high.
Inhalant use became popular in the 1960s with teens who sniffed glue. Since then, other kinds of inhalants have become popular. Inhalants are used mostly by younger teens and school-age children, although adults sometimes also use them.
Street names for inhalants include air blast, bold, chroming, discorama, glad, hippie crack, moon gas, oz, poor man's pot, rush, snappers, whippets, and whiteout.
Types of Inhalants
Many household products have chemicals that are volatile. Volatile means the chemical produces vapors, which can be breathed in (inhaled). Common types of abused inhalants are:
- Aerosols, such as air freshener, deodorant, fabric protector, hair spray, vegetable oil spray, and spray paint.
- Gases, such as butane (lighter fluid), computer cleaning spray, freon, helium, nitrous oxide (laughing gas), which is found in whipped cream containers, and propane.
- Nitrites, which are no longer sold legally. When nitrites are bought illegally, they are often labeled "leather cleaner," "liquid aroma," "room odorizer," or "video head cleaner."
- Solvents, such as correction fluid, degreaser, fast-drying glue, felt-tip marker, gasoline, nail polish remover, and paint thinner.
Ways Inhalants are Used
Inhalants are breathed in through the mouth or nose. Slang terms for these methods are:
- Bagging. Inhaling the substance after it has been sprayed or put into a paper or plastic bag.
- Ballooning. Inhaling a gas from a balloon.
- Dusting. Spraying an aerosol into the nose or mouth.
- Glading. Inhaling air-freshener aerosols.
- Huffing. Inhaling from a rag soaked with the substance and then held to the face or stuffed in the mouth.
- Sniffing. Inhaling a substance directly through the nose.
- Snorting. Inhaling a substance directly through the mouth.
Other things that are often used to hold inhalant chemicals include empty soda cans, empty perfume bottles, and toilet paper tubes stuffed with rags or toilet paper soaked with the chemical.
Effects of Inhalants on the Brain
When inhaled, the chemicals are absorbed by the lungs. Within seconds, the chemicals go to the brain, causing the person to feel intoxicated, or high. The high usually involves feeling excited and happy, a feeling similar to being drunk from drinking alcohol.
Some inhalants cause the brain to release dopamine. Dopamine is a chemical that is involved with mood and thinking. It is also called the feel-good brain chemical.
Because the high lasts only a few minutes, users try to make the high last longer by inhaling repeatedly for several hours.
Nitrites are different from other inhalants. Nitrites make blood vessels larger and the heart beat faster. This causes the person to feel very warm and excited. Nitrites are often inhaled to improve sexual performance rather than to get high.
Harmful Effects of Inhalants
Chemicals in inhalants can harm the body in many ways, leading to health problems such as:
- Bone marrow damage
- Liver damage
- Hearing loss
- Heart problems, such as irregular or fast heart rhythms
- Loss of bowel and urinary control
- Mood changes, such as not caring about anything (apathy), violent behavior, confusion, hallucinations, or depression
- Permanent nerve problems, such as numbness, tingling of the hands and feet, weakness, and tremors
Inhalants can also be deadly:
- Irregular or fast heart rhythms can cause the heart to stop pumping blood to the rest of the body. This condition is called sudden sniffing death syndrome.
- Suffocation can result when the lungs and brain do not get enough oxygen. This can happen when the levels of chemical vapors are so high in the body that they take the place of oxygen in the blood. Suffocation can also happen if a plastic bag is put over the head when bagging (inhaling from a bag).
Inhalants can cause birth defects when used during pregnancy.
Inhalants can be Addictive
People who use inhalants can get addicted to them. This means their mind and body are dependent on the inhalants. They are not able to control their use and they need (crave) them to get through daily life.
Addiction can lead to tolerance. Tolerance means that more and more of the inhalant is needed to get the same high feeling. And if the person tries to stop using the inhalant, reactions may result. These are called withdrawal symptoms and may include:
- Strong cravings for the drug
- Having mood swings from feeling depressed to agitated to anxious
- Not able to concentrate
Physical reactions may include headaches, aches and pains, increased appetite, and not sleeping well.
Signs That Someone is Using Inhalants
It is not always easy to tell if someone is using inhalants. Be alert for these signs:
- Breath or clothes smell like chemicals
- Cough and runny nose all the time
- Eyes are watery or pupils are wide open (dilated)
- Feeling tired all the time
- Hearing or seeing things that are not there (hallucinations)
- Hiding empty containers or rags around the house
- Mood swings or being angry and irritable for no reason
- No appetite, nausea and vomiting, weight loss
- Paint or stains on the face, hands, or clothing
- Rash or blisters on the face
Treatment begins with recognizing the problem. The next step is getting help and support.
Treatment programs use behavior change techniques through counseling (talk therapy). The goal is to help the person to understand their behavior and why they use inhalants. Involving family and friends during counseling can help support the person to keep them from going back to using (relapsing).
At this time, there is no medicine that can help reduce the use of inhalants by blocking their effects. But, scientists are researching such medicines.
As the person recovers, encourage the following to help prevent relapse:
- Keep going to treatment sessions.
- Find new activities and goals to replace the ones that involved inhalant use.
- Exercise and eat healthy foods. Taking care of the body helps it heal from the harmful effects of inhalants.
- Avoid triggers. These triggers can be people and friends the person used inhalants with. They can also be places, things, or emotions that can make the person want to use again.
Helpful resources include:
- LifeRing -- www.lifering.org/
- Alliance for Consumer Education - Inhalant Abuse -- www.consumered.org/programs/inhalant-abuse-prevention
- National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens -- teens.drugabuse.gov/drug-facts/inhalants
- SMART Recovery -- www.smartrecovery.org/
- Partnership for Drug-Free Kids -- drugfree.org/
For adults, your workplace employee assistance program (EAP) is also a good resource.
When to Call the Doctor
Call for an appointment with your health care provider if you or someone you know is addicted to inhalants and needs help stopping. Also call if you are having withdrawal symptoms that concern you.
Substance abuse - inhalants; Drug abuse - inhalants; Drug use - inhalants; Glue - inhalants
National Institute on Drug Abuse website. Inhalants DrugFacts. www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/inhalants. Updated April 2020. Accessed June 26, 2020.
Nguyen J, O'Brien C, Schapp S. Adolescent inhalant use prevention, assessment, and treatment: a literature synthesis. Int J Drug Policy. 2016;31:15-24. PMID: 26969125 pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26969125/.
Breuner CC. Substance abuse. In: Kliegman RM, St. Geme JW, Blum NJ, Shah SS, Tasker RC, Wilson KM, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 21st ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 140.
Review Date 5/10/2020
Updated by: Fred K. Berger, MD, addiction and forensic psychiatrist, Scripps Memorial Hospital, La Jolla, CA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.