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Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD

Most people think harmful drugs are only found on street corners or in local pharmacies, not cleaning cabinets or garages.

But sometimes items commonly found in millions of homes aren't used for their intended purposes. Some people inhale (breathe in) the chemical vapors made by common household substances — known as inhalants — to get high. What many people don't realize is how dangerous this really is.

Why People Use Inhalants

Inhalants might seem like an alternative to other mood-altering drugs because they're cheap, can be purchased legally, and are easy to get. But that doesn't make them safer. When used as directed, household products are safe for cleaning, painting, and the other things they're meant to do. But as inhalants, they can cause serious problems, even death.

Different Kinds of Inhalants

There are four main types of inhalants: volatile solvents, gases, aerosols, and nitrites. Volatile solvents, gases, and aerosols can alter moods and create a high. Nitrites are believed to increase sexual function and pleasure.

Here is what else you need to know about the types of inhalants:

  • Volatile solvents are liquids that become a gas at room temperature. Some examples are paint thinners and removers, gasoline, glues, and felt-tip marker fluids.
  • Gases include medical gases (ether, nitrous oxide) and household or commercial products (butane lighters, propane tanks, whipped cream dispensers that contain nitrous oxide, and refrigerants).
  • Aerosol sprays are some of the most common inhalants in the home and include spray paint, deodorant and hairsprays, vegetable oil cooking sprays, and static cling sprays.
  • Nitrites include cyclohexyl nitrite, amyl nitrite, and butyl nitrite. On the street, they're called "poppers" or "snappers."

Effects on the Body

People inhale chemical vapors in several ways, including sniffing, snorting, or spraying the inhalant directly into the nose or mouth, putting it into a bag or other container and then inhaling from there, putting the vapor onto a rag, or inhaling nitrous oxide from balloons.

Because the high from inhalants only lasts a few minutes, some people may inhale over and over again for long periods of time to maintain the high, increasing the amount of dangerous chemicals entering and damaging the body.

Once the vapors enter the body, some are absorbed by parts of the brain and nervous system. All of the inhalants (except nitrites) slow down the body's functions, similar to the effects of drinking alcohol. At first someone gets excited, but then gets tired, has trouble speaking clearly or walking well, gets dizzy, loses inhibitions, and may get agitated. It can sometimes take up to 2 weeks for the chemical to completely pass from the body.

Immediate effects of inhaling chemicals include:

  • increased heart rate
  • hallucinations or delusions
  • losing feeling or consciousness
  • nausea and vomiting
  • loss of coordination
  • slurred speech

Long-term inhalant use can lead to serious health problems, including:

  • brain damage (toxic chemicals may make people become slow or clumsy, have trouble solving problems or planning ahead, suffer from memory loss, or become unable to learn new things)
  • muscle weakness
  • depression
  • headaches and nosebleeds
  • loss of sense of smell or hearing

Nitrites work differently. Instead of slowing down the brain and the spinal cord, they increase the size of blood vessels and relax the muscles. People who use nitrites for increased sexual pleasure are less likely to practice safe sex and are at risk of getting sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) including HIV.

How Inhalants Kill

Like most street drugs, inhalants can be deadly. Someone can die from abusing inhalants after doing it only once. Causes of death include:

  • Sudden sniffing death syndrome (SSDS) — This is the most common cause of death from inhalant use. The inhalant can cause irregular heartbeats and cardiac arrest (when the heart suddenly stops). This syndrome is unpredictable and can happen even the first time a person tries an inhalant.
  • Asphyxia — Toxic fumes replace oxygen in the lungs.
  • Choking — A user can choke, usually on his or her vomit.
  • Suffocation — When vapors are inhaled from a plastic bag, the bag can block air from entering the lungs.
  • Injuries — Since people high on inhalants often make poor decisions, injuries and accidental deaths are more likely from motor vehicle accidents, drowning, jumping, or falling from heights. They also can get burned or injured if a spark ignites flammable inhalants.
  • Suicide — Some people become depressed when their high wears off.

Signs of Inhalant Abuse

Inhalants, like other drugs, have noticeable effects on those using them. Someone on inhalants may suffer from a number of different ill effects, including:

  • mood swings
  • extreme anger, agitation, and irritability
  • exhaustion
  • loss of appetite
  • frequent vomiting
  • hallucinations and illusions
  • facial rashes and blisters
  • frequent runny nose and cough
  • dilated pupils
  • glazed or watery eyes
  • extremely bad breath

Getting Help

Treatment for inhalant addiction is mostly behavioral. Experts in drug treatment help people change behaviors and teach them how to function without drugs — dealing with cravings, avoiding situations that could lead to using inhalants, and preventing and handling relapses.

As with any addiction, it can be hard to stop without professional help and treatment. Overcoming an addiction takes times and isn't something that can be done alone — everyone needs support. The experts who help people with addictions are trained to help, not judge. 

If you are using inhalants, talk to your parent, doctor, school counselor, or nurse. They can help you get the help you need.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: September 2016