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A Parent's Guide to Inhalant Abuse

Father having a discussion with his teenaged son.

Inhalants are chemical vapors that alter the mind when breathed in. These extremely poisonous chemicals can cause death by triggering a rapid, irregular heartbeat. This is called sudden sniffing death syndrome. They can also cause death by suffocation. And inhalants can cause lifelong (permanent) damage to the brain, liver, and kidneys. They can cause hearing loss, too.

Inhalant sources

More than 1,000 household products can harm the body when inhaled. Most act on the central nervous system. The National Institute on Drug Abuse organizes inhalants in these general areas:

  • Volatile solvents. These change to vapor at room temperature. They include paint thinners and removers, dry-cleaning fluids, degreasers, gasoline, glues, correction fluids, and felt-tip marker fluids.

  • Aerosols. These are sprays that contain propellants and solvents. They include spray paints, deodorant and hair sprays, vegetable oil sprays for cooking, and fabric protector sprays.

  • Gases. These are gases used in household or commercial products. But they also include medical anesthesia products such as ether, chloroform, halothane, and nitrous oxide. Nitrous oxide can be found in whipped cream dispensers and products that raise octane levels in racing cars. Household or commercial products that have gases include butane lighters, propane tanks, whipped cream dispensers, and refrigerants.

  • Nitrites. These substances open the blood vessels and relax the muscles. Instead of changing a mood like the other categories of inhalants, nitrites enhance sex. Nitrites include cyclohexyl nitrite, isoamyl (amyl) nitrite, and isobutyl (butyl) nitrite. They are often called poppers or snappers. The Consumer Product Safety Commission has banned the sale of nitrites for human use. But these products can still be found. They are sold in small bottles with labels such as video head cleaner, room deodorizer, and liquid aroma.

Methods

Inhalants can be breathed in through the nose or the mouth in different ways:

  • Sniffing. Sniffing or snorting fumes from containers.

  • Spraying. Spraying aerosol containers directly into the nose or mouth.

  • Bagging. Sniffing or inhaling fumes from substances sprayed or placed inside a plastic or paper bag.

  • Huffing. Holding a rag soaked with inhalant up to the face or stuffing it in the mouth.

  • Inhaling. Breathing in vapors, such as from balloons filled with nitrous oxide.

Effects

When enough inhalant is breathed in through the nose or mouth, it can cause intoxicating effects. At first users may feel slightly stimulated. After breathing in more of the substance, they feel less inhibited and less in control.

Sniffing highly concentrated amounts of the chemicals in solvents or aerosol sprays can cause heart irregularities and death. High concentrations of inhalants also can cause death from suffocation. This happens because inhaling concentrated chemicals prevents you from breathing in any oxygen. If the lungs and brain are without oxygen for a long enough time, you will suffocate and die. This can happen with huffing and bagging.

Fatal dose

Death from inhalants can result from a very high concentration of fumes.

Deliberately inhaling a substance from inside a paper or plastic bag or in an enclosed area greatly increases the chances of suffocation. A long session of inhalant abuse can cause irregular and rapid heartbeats. This is called sudden sniffing death syndrome. A healthy young person can die from one single sniffing session. This is particularly true for the inhalants butane, propane, and aerosol chemicals.

Death also can be caused by:

  • Convulsions or seizures

  • Coma

  • Choking, from inhaling vomit

  • Deadly injury from accidents that happen while intoxicated

Stay calm if you catch your child abusing inhalants. Immediately remove or push the can, bag, or rag away. Then stay with a conscious child in an airy room. If your child is unconscious or not breathing, call and start CPR if trained to do so.

Seek professional help from a counselor or healthcare provider once your child has recovered.

Inhaling nitrites or poppers can sometimes cause a deadly blood disorder (methemoglobenemia). The blood becomes physically changed so that it can't deliver oxygen to the body. The person's skin may look slightly blue or pale. Or the skin may actually turn blue and purple from lack of oxygen. The person's blood may seem chocolate in color. Using an oxygen face mask won't improve their condition. This is a medical emergency and requires an antidote medicine. Call right away.

Signs of abuse

These are signs of possible inhalant abuse:

  • Red or runny eyes or nose

  • Slurred speech

  • Stains on the body or clothing

  • Sores or spots around the mouth or nose

  • Chemical odor or some other abnormal odor on skin or clothes

  • Drunk, dazed, or dizzy appearance

  • Nausea and loss of appetite

  • Anxiety, excitability, or grouchiness, depression

  • Empty spray paint or solvent containers, especially if they have been hidden

Preventing inhalant abuse starts with education and awareness. If you think your child uses inhalants, openly talk about it with him or her. Also stress that they are deadly, poisonous chemicals. If abuse is occurring, get professional help for your child. If your child refuses to get treatment, seek help for yourself so you can be prepared to manage the situation.

Online Medical Reviewer: Eric Perez MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Marianne Fraser MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Raymond Kent Turley BSN MSN RN
Date Last Reviewed: 1/1/2019
© 2000-2019 The StayWell Company, LLC. 800 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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