Drugs categorised as inhalants are chemical vapours that are breathed in to produce an intoxicating effect. Inhalants often come in the form of everyday household products like aerosols or solvents. Examples of these products include paint, glue, fuel and cleaning fluid. Many do not even consider inhalants as drugs because of their innocuous intended purpose, but intentionally breathing in the fumes from these products to achieve a ‘high’ can be incredibly dangerous.
The effect of inhaling these fumes differs according to the kind of inhalant used. Inhalants can be broken down into four categories; volatile solvents, aerosols, gases and nitrates.
Volatile solvents are liquids that become a vapour when exposed to the air and are present in household products like paint thinner, nail varnish remover, craft cement, correction fluid and felt-tip pens. They might contain chemicals such as toluene, chlorinated hydrocarbon and methylene chloride.
Aerosols, which contain substances called propellants, include paint sprays and deodorants. Gases are present in commercial products like some cigarette lighters (which contain benzene) and squirty cream dispensers (containing nitrous oxide). Nitrates are a category of inhalant that are mainly used to enhance sexual experience and include amyl nitrate, which was initially used by doctors to treat chest pain and is still sometimes used in examinations of the heart.
Inhalant abusers breathe in the vapours from these products either by sniffing from the product container itself, literally spraying an aerosol directly into their mouth or nose, inhaling the fumes of a substance placed inside a plastic bag (known as bagging), placing a rag soaked with inhalant fluid into their mouth and breathing in (known as huffing), or inhaling nitrous oxide (or laughing gas) from balloons.
The high that users experience from inhalants is very short, often as little as a few minutes. This leads inhalant abusers to repeat the process continually over a period of time in order to extend the intoxication effect, a process that can have devastating effects on the body and can lead to sudden death, a phenomenon known as SSDS or ‘Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome’.
Inhalants are present in a wide variety of household products such as aerosol cans, cleaning fluids, lighters and other fuel dispensers and solvents, including glue. Users of inhalants have given these substances a variety of alternative street names, as well as terms which refer to how the inhalant is used.
The inhalant nitrous oxide is commonly known as laughing gas. Amyl nitrite and butyl nitrate are sold illicitly on the streets under a number of pseudonyms, most commonly ‘poppers’ but are also to be found marketed as ‘liquid aroma’, ‘leather cleaner’ and ‘video head cleaner’. They are usually sold in little brown bottles, most commonly in sex shops. Butyl nitrate is also referred to as ‘snappers’.
The gas cartridges from dispensers of whipped cream are sometimes called ‘whippets’. ‘Bold’ and ‘rush’ are street terms for a variety of nitrites.
The effect of breathing in an inhalant is similar to the intoxicating effect caused by alcohol, often involving loss of co-ordination, slurring of speech, short-lived euphoria and dizziness. Users may feel lightheaded and experience hallucinations and repeated inhalation can give rise to a lack of inhibition, drowsiness and acute headache. Depending on the chemicals present in an inhalant, users may also feel extremely nauseous leading to vomiting, they may get diarrhoea, feel disorientated and confused and may lose consciousness altogether.
When breathed in, inhalants force air from the lungs, causing oxygen deprivation known medically as ‘hypoxia’. This may lead to unconsciousness and suffocation. Depriving the body of oxygen causes damage to all the cells in the body, but the worst effects are to the brain. Habitual inhalant users may experience memory loss and learning difficulties.
Abusing inhalants over a long period of time can break down the myelin in the user’s body. This substance is the fatty tissue surrounding the body’s nerve fibres and its deterioration can lead to damage of the nerves resulting in muscle spasms and compromised motor function, including affecting the ability of the user to walk and talk
There are a variety of different effects that specific chemicals can have on the body when inhaled. Some chemicals found in spray paints and correction fluids can cause loss of hearing, others in aerosols and glues can damage the brain and central nervous system and inhaling petrol fumes can damage the body’s bone marrow. The liver and kidneys can also be damaged by inhaling chemicals found in some household products.
Inhaling the chemicals from aerosol cans or solvents can cause heart attack and death within minutes of repeated inhalation.
Inhalants are present in a wide variety of commercial household and industrial products. As such they derive from practically every industrialised nation in the world.
The chemicals industry has historically been and continues to be concentrated in the areas of Western Europe, North America and Japan. The European Community is the largest producer of chemicals for household use, followed by the USA and Japan.
Europe is the largest producer of aerosols in the world, followed the United States. It is estimated that the world produces over 12 billion aerosols a year.
The global solvents market is fast growing, thanks to the increasing consumption in the automotive, electronics and medical products sectors and a rise in demand for solvents-based products in the developing markets of Latin America, Eastern
Europe, East Asia and the Middle East.
Increased environmental concern has restricted the use of chlorinated solvents, which are present in some inhalants.
Europe also dominates the production of solvents, possessing a 26.5% market share of the solvents industry in 2010.
The production of solvents has, like the aerosol industry, been affected by concerns about the environment. The paint industry, one sector traditionally associated with chemical solvents is increasingly exploring the development of powder and water-based paints to replace those containing solvents. Nevertheless, increased demand for solvent-based paints from the aforementioned developing markets in Asia and elsewhere, where looser environmental restrictions exist, has meant that production remains high worldwide.
Some of the world’s largest producers of solvents include BASF SE, BP Plc, Eastman Chemical Company, Exxon and Shell Chemicals.
In the aerosols manufacturing sector, big names include BOC Speciality Gases, AvantiGas, GlaxoSmithKline and Unilever UK.
There are a number of ways that you may be able to tell if someone is abusing inhalants regularly. Their clothes, body or breath may give off a sickly, sweet chemical smell. They might have have reddened and inflamed skin around their nostrils, may frequently experience nosebleeds or exhibit a rash around their nose or mouth.
Someone abusing inhalants may have little interest in food leading to weight loss. Their skin may be pale, almost blue in colour, and their eyes may habitually be bloodshot and watery with dilated pupils. Someone slurring their speech, speaking abnormally slowly and being uncoordinated or clumsy may be showing signs that they have abused inhalants.
Other signs of inhalant addiction are abusers showing evidence of short-term memory loss, violent mood swings, uncontrollable shaking or trembling and sudden displays of excitability or aggression. If someone is regularly vomiting it could be another sign of inhalant addiction.
As well as the physical signs of inhalant addiction that manifest themselves physically or through behaviour, there are other signs that may be taken as evidence of inhalant abuse. These might include paint or glue being often present on someone’s hands, face or clothing or the presence of empty containers of products that can be used as inhalants like paint cans, tubes of glue, etc. An inhalant abuser may possess an abnormally large collection of felt-tip marker pens or have bottles of nail varnish but no evidence of using this for its intended purpose.
Used and discarded plastic bags containing remnants of an inhalant substance might also be found in the room or pockets of someone who is abusing inhalants.
Someone who finds themselves with a psychological addiction to the effects of inhalants must seek immediate help or risk irreversible damage to their body, or even death. The withdrawal symptoms of inhalants may be said to be less powerful than many drugs, but many will feel a strong craving to use inhalants again in order to achieve the ‘high’ that they may have become dependent on. The urge to continue using inhalants to experience their mind-altering effects may last a considerably long period of time, which makes the chances of a former inhalant abuser relapsing very high.
As with most addictions, the underlying reasons why someone is seeking to alter the state of their mind in most cases need to be addressed and this almost certainly will be a central part of the rehabilitation support that is given to an inhalant addict.
A number of options are open to those seeking help with inhalant addiction and many are especially geared towards younger age groups where inhalant use tends to be prevalent, for example rehabilitation ‘boarding schools’ where teenagers can receive ongoing therapeutic care.
The sector of society that is most likely to abuse inhalants are adolescents and as such there are particular problems that tend to be associated with that age group that need to be addressed in relation to treatments for inhalant addiction. These include a chaotic or fractured family life, problems at school and low self-esteem. For the reason that inhalant abuse often goes in tandem with other issues in abusers lives, some substance rehabilitation programmes do not admit people whose drug problem is with inhalants.
When treating someone who has become addicted to inhalants it is first essential to determine exactly which substances they have been inhaling in order to treat the physical effects of each one, so a thorough medical examination is carried out. The poisonous chemicals from inhalants can remain in the body for weeks after they have been breathed in, so detoxification programmes may last for over a month.
Psychological therapy to tackle the root cause of why someone abuses inhalants can only start after the body has been shown to be entirely free of inhalant chemicals.
Rehabilitation therapy commonly lasts for many months, and sometimes for up to two years. People who have habitually abused inhalants often have a short attention span and have difficulty processing complex thoughts and as such the initial therapy sessions are kept very short, lasting around 15 to 20 minutes at first. Live-in rehabilitation centres for inhalant abusers are understandably kept free of the products that have potential for abuse, with non-solvent and non-aerosol products used as substitutes in as many cases as possible. In addition, those in such therapy should be closely monitored by clinical staff and family members.
Inhalant abuse is often a group activity so an inhalant abuser should be encouraged to find a new non-drug taking peer group. Extended support and aftercare is important as is making sure the addict finds new forms of recreation. Education is also a major part of both the treatment and prevention of inhalant abuse as many inhalant addicts develop a dependence on the drug without being aware of the damage that inhalants have on the brain and body.