Inhalant Drugs

Inhalants Facts

Effects Classification: Anaesthetic; Intoxicant; Dissociative
Inhalants Street Names: Gasoline; Acetone; Mineral Spirits; Freon; Computer Duster; Glue; whippets, poppers, snappers, rush, bolt, bullets
Chemical Name: Various
Description: Inhalants are either chemicals in gaseous form or volatile solvents (liquids) that becomes gas at the time of use, which are inhaled by people for their psychoactive effects.
Caution: Our understanding of the literature is that there is no such thing as safe use of most volatile solvents, aerosols or other street inhalants : their psychoactive effects may be inseparable from nerve and organ damage.

Inhalants can be classified by the intended function. Most inhalant drugs that are used non-medically are ingredients in household or industrial chemical products that are not intended to be concentrated and inhaled. A small number of recreational inhalant drugs are pharmaceutical products that are used illicitly.

Inhalants Effects

Inhalant users inhale vapors or aerosol propellant gases using plastic bags held over the mouth or by breathing from an open container of solvents, such as gasoline or paint thinner. Nitrous oxide gases from whipped cream aerosol cans, aerosol hairspray or non-stick frying spray are sprayed into plastic bags. When inhaling non-stick cooking spray or other aerosol products, some users may filter the aerosolized particles out with a rag. Some gases, such as propane and butane gases, are inhaled directly from the canister. Once these solvents or gases are inhaled, the extensive capillary surface of the lungs rapidly absorb the solvent or gas, and blood levels peak rapidly. The intoxication effects occur so quickly that the effects of inhalation can resemble the intensity of effects produced by intravenous injection of other psychoactive drugs.

The effects of solvent intoxication can vary widely depending on the dose and what type of solvent or gas is inhaled. A person who has inhaled a small amount of rubber cement or paint thinner vapor may be impaired in a manner resembling alcohol inebriation. A person who has inhaled a larger quantity of solvents or gases, or a stronger chemical, may experience stronger effects such as distortion in perceptions of time and space, hallucinations, and emotional disturbances.

In the short term, many users experience headache, nausea and vomiting, slurred speech, loss of motor coordination, and wheezing. A characteristic “glue sniffer’s rash” around the nose and mouth is sometimes seen after prolonged use. An odor of paint or solvents on clothes, skin, and breath is sometimes a sign of inhalant abuse, and paint or solvent residues can sometimes emerge in sweat.

Inhalants Health Risks

Inhalant use may lead to both primary and secondary health effects. Primary effects include harm caused by various chemicals that may be used in the industrial solvents or fuels that are popular for use (e.g., tetra-ethyl lead used in some fuels). Secondary effects include injuries users may experience due to loss of physical coordination or the undertaking of dangerous behavior during the intoxication.

Precise statistics on deaths caused by inhalant abuse are difficult to determine, as it is considered a dramatically under-reported cause of death due to the common result of a cause-of-death determination being attributed to the side-effects of inhalant abuse, such as a blood vessel rupture in the brain or a heart attack, rather than to the abuse itself. Inhalant use or abuse was mentioned on 144 death certificates in Texas during the period 1988-1998 and was reported in 39 deaths in Virginia between 1987 and 1996 from acute voluntary exposure to abused inhalants.

General risks of all agents in inhalant class

In some cases, inhalant users can be injured or killed due to the effects of inhaling solvents or gases, which can cause hypoxia (lack of oxygen), pneumonia, cardiac failure or arrest, or aspiration of vomit. The inhaling of some solvents can cause hearing loss, limb spasms, and damage to the central nervous system and brain. Serious but potentially reversible effects include liver and kidney damage and blood-oxygen depletion. Death from inhalants is generally caused by a very high concentration of fumes. Deliberately inhaling solvents from an attached paper or plastic bag or in a closed area greatly increases the chances of suffocation. Brain damage is typically seen with chronic long-term use as opposed to short-term exposure.

Hypoxia can occur when inhalant users are huffing from a plastic bag over their face, which means that they are not breathing enough oxygen. Also, since many solvents are highly flammable (e.g., gasoline, paint thinner), some users have suffered burn injuries and deaths due to fires. Female inhalant users who are pregnant may have adverse effects on the fetus, and the baby may be smaller when it is born and may need additional health care. There is some evidence of birth defects and disabilities in babies born to women who sniffed solvents such as gasoline. Driving while using solvents presents the same dangers as other types of impaired driving, because many solvents cause an alcohol-type intoxication.

In the short term, death from solvent abuse occurs most commonly from aspiration of vomit while unconscious or from a combination of respiratory depression and hypoxia, the second cause being especially a risk with heavier-than-air vapors such as butane or gasoline vapor. Deaths typically occur from complications related to excessive sedation and vomiting. Actual overdose from the drug does occur, however, and inhaled solvent abuse is statistically more likely to result in life-threatening respiratory depression than intravenous use of opiates such as heroin. Most deaths from solvent abuse could be prevented if individuals were resuscitated quickly when they stopped breathing and their airway cleared if they vomited. However, most inhalant abuse takes place when people inhale solvents by themselves or in groups of people who are intoxicated. Certain solvents are more hazardous than others, such as gasoline.

Risks associated with specific agents

The hypoxic effect of inhalants can cause damage to many organ systems (particularly the brain, which has a very low tolerance for oxygen deprivation), but there can also be additional toxicity resulting from either the physical properties of the compound itself or additional ingredients present in a product.

Methylene chloride, after being metabolized, can cause carbon monoxide poisoning.

Gasoline sniffing can cause lead poisoning, though this is less common where leaded gas is banned.

Ingestion of alkyl nitrites can cause methemoglobinemia, although inhalation does not.

Carbon tetrachloride can cause significant damage to multiple systems, but its association with liver damage is so strong that it is used in animal models to induce liver injury.

Use of butane and propane can create a risk of burns.

Benzene use can cause bone marrow depression.

Toluene can damage myelin.

Toxicity may also result from the pharmacological properties of the drug; excess NMDA antagonism can completely block calcium influx into neurons and provoke cell death through apoptosis, although this is more likely to be a long-term result of chronic solvent abuse than a consequence of short-term use.

History of Inhalants

History of inhalants goes back to the first use of volatile solvents and gases. History of inhalants includes abuse of chemical vapors since they first began being manufactured. Chemicals included in the history of inhalants are solvents, aerosols, gases, nitrites and natural gases. Degreasers, gasoline and glues have many uses in manufacturing and even in the common household garage. Unfortunately this makes them very accessible to children and very easy chemicals to abuse. Solvents such as these are inexpensive and alter mood and reality when abused. Other solvents are used in marking pens to dry ink and in correction fluids like liquid paper. Such solvents are abused by inhaling the fumes directly through the mouth or nose. Sometimes solvents are soaked into rags and placed in the mouth or over the nose and inhaled. Solvents can also be abused by being placed into a plastic bag and breathing through the bag.

In addition to solvents, the history of inhalants also includes aerosols. Some users will spray paints, deodorants, hairsprays, fabric sprays or even vegetable oil sprays directly into the nose and mouth area to get the effect. The history of inhalants like these is recent since many of these chemicals have only been around a short while.

Gases, on the other hand, have a long history of inhalants. Butane, propane and nitrous oxide gases have been around for a long time. Of course during this last century it has become easier than ever to abuse these gases. Nitrous oxide is the most widely abused gas and can be found in whipped cream dispensers and car fuel additives.