Inhalants are volatile substances which produce chemical vapors that can be inhaled. This is often referred to as sniffing or huffing. Current use includes volatile solvents such as those found in paint and glue, aerosols such as hairspray, whipped cream propellants, spray paints, correction fluid, amyl nitrate, butyl nitrate and nitrous oxide. Neurotoxicity varies depending on the substance used, the dose and duration of exposure.
The abuse of inhalants nationally is much greater than most people realize. About 17% of adolescents in the United States say that they have sniffed inhalants at least once in their lives. The toxic vapors have the impact on the user of producing a quick high. Most inhalants are used for their mind and mood altering effects. The exceptions to this are nitrate inhalants which are predominantly used as sexual enhancers.
Acute symptoms associated with the use of inhalants include:
- Excitation, loss of inhibition, lightheadedness, slurred speech, agitation turning to drowsiness.
- With increasing intoxication, the user may develop dizziness, nausea and disorientation.
Extreme intoxication may create signs of:
- Sleeplessness, general muscle weakness, hallucinations, disruptive behavior.
- After the high wears off, the user often falls asleep, appears lethargic and may experience headache.
- Chronic abusers experience continued weight loss, muscle weakness, general disorientation, inattentiveness, lack of ability to concentrate, and lack of coordination.
Other signs of abuse include:
- Chemical odors on clothing, hair or breath.
- Hidden empty aerosol cans.
- Paint on face or clothing near the face.
Acute high level exposure to solvents will induce short term effects on brain function that appear to be reversible. Chronic high level exposure over a longer time slowly produces irreversible neurological syndromes. Severe damage to the brain and nervous system can occur and use can cause death by starving the body of oxygen or forcing the heart to beat more rapidly and erratically. Chronic use can produce kidney, heart, lung and liver damage. In addition, inhalant use is linked with antisocial behavior, disruptive behavior, depression, and self-directed aggression in the user.