Inhalant Addiction: Signs, Symptoms, Risks, and Treatment Resources

Medically Reviewed By

Dr. Po-Chang Hsu

Dr. Po-Chang Hsu

On April 15, 2024

Written By

Amanda Stevens

Amanda Stevens, B.S.

On November 13, 2023

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Many inhalants have no medical use, and they are not only illegal but also very dangerous. They are known for permanently damaging the brain and other organs. Some will cause a slow cognitive decline, while others might cause a person to die on the spot.

What Are Inhalants?

Some inhalants, such as nitrous oxide, can be useful as a mild sedative in a dentist’s office. Nitrites can also be inhaled to help with blood flow. However, most other inhalants are mundane objects that most people wouldn’t consider using. Common examples include paint thinner, the gas in a whipped cream can, and gasoline. Inhaling these fumes allows a person to experience an intense sense of euphoria. This euphoria is very addictive and can spur a person to keep inhaling these substances for months or years. Few people realize that this chronic inhalation of harsh substances can lead to serious consequences.

Side Effects of Inhalants

Around 2.2 million people in the United States used inhalants in 2021.[1] This kind of substance abuse is most common among young people. This is because they may think it’s fun to try something risky like inhaling fumes that they’re not supposed to. They may also have friends who dare them to do so. While many substances used as inhalants are not regulated under the Controlled Substances Act, they are often subject to other regulations concerning their sale and use. They can cause serious side effects, such as dizziness, lung damage, fatigue, slurred speech, and fainting. Some may experience permanent brain damage and organ failure. Inhalants go by many names, including moon gas, hippy crack, and rush.

How Are Inhalants Taken?

Inhalants are always breathed into the lungs. Taking them any other way is impossible since they consist of fumes. Most people who use inhalants get their noses as close to the fumes as possible before inhaling deeply. This brings the fumes into the lungs, diffusing into the blood. The fumes will start producing certain effects when they reach the brain. Euphoria will be the first result, followed by a very sick feeling. Whipped cream cans, glue bottles, and paint thinner are some of the most common inhalants. All of them can cause euphoria as well as serious health problems. They are also easy to access because they are sold in many different stores.

Statistics on Inhalant Use, Misuse, and Addiction

15% of high school students use illicit drugs.[2] Inhalants are often high on the list because they are easy for young people to obtain. Once an inhalant addiction takes hold, it is very difficult for a young person to know how to deal with it. Most will give in to the cravings and keep using inhalants until they get gravely sick.

Effects of Inhalant Abuse

When a person first inhales, they will experience strong feelings of pleasure. They may feel very happy and excited. However, these feelings are often paired with confusion, dizziness, lightheadedness, and problems with motor coordination. As a person continues to use inhalants, they may notice effects such as stomach pain, difficulty breathing, and lung or nasal infections.

The effects of inhalant abuse will get increasingly worse the longer the addiction continues. Once a person starts using them every day, they could end up in a coma, sustain permanent brain damage, or even die.

Can You Overdose on Inhalants?

It is possible to overdose on inhalants when a person takes too much or takes them over a long period of time. Every time someone uses an inhalant drug, they will cause damage to their system. This damage will eventually become so severe that it will be difficult or impossible for them to function. An overdose is also more likely when inhalants are mixed with alcohol or other drugs.

Signs and Symptoms of Inhalant Overdose

A person who has overdosed on inhalants may be unresponsive. They may have seizures, or their heart may stop beating. They may be clammy to the touch and very pale. Since an overdose is a medical emergency, you need to act fast and call 911. Once paramedics arrive, they can provide supportive care and manage symptoms, but there are no specific reversal agents for inhalant overdoses like there are for some other types of drug overdoses.

Dangers of Long-Term Inhalant Use

Between 100 and 200 people die from inhalants every year.[3] Inhalants cause death through asphyxiation, seizures, coma, and accidents. After several months or years of using inhalants, brain damage will result, along with damage to some of the internal organs. This damage is often irreversible and may be fatal. Brain damage can cause difficulty thinking, memory problems, difficulty speaking, and poor motor coordination.

Mixing Inhalants with Other Drugs

Some might think it’s fun to mix inhalants with alcohol. Few realize that doing this could cause fainting, coma, seizures, respiratory suppression, and death. It is also possible for a person’s heart to slow down so much that it stops.

Inhalant Addiction and Abuse

Some might use inhalants occasionally at parties and never touch the stuff again. Others might become dependent on it and use it every day. Once inhalants become a habit and you feel that you can’t function without them, an addiction has formed.

Signs of Addiction to Inhalants

If you develop withdrawal symptoms when you stop using inhalants, this is a clear sign that you have an addiction. Withdrawal symptoms include nausea, vomiting, cramps, pain, confusion, and anxiety. You may also feel strong cravings for the substance.

Inhalant Addiction and Mental Health

Inhalants affect the brain in several negative ways. Besides damaging the brain’s structure, they can also affect a person’s mental health. This may lead to delusions, paranoia, mood changes, depression, and anxiety. Some may experience psychotic behavior, while others may have suicidal thoughts.

Cutting Agents Used for Inhalants

It is not usually possible to cut inhalants with anything since they are aerosolized. However, some inhalants can be adulterated or mixed with other substances, especially those in liquid form, such as nitrites.

Inhalant Addiction Treatment

If you’re considering treatment for inhalants, there are many options. Detox is very important for getting the drug out of your system. Residential or intensive outpatient treatment plans are ideal for those who need extra support. Extended care options exist for those needing more time to recover. Recovery time from inhalant addiction can vary widely depending on the individual’s circumstances, the duration and intensity of use, and the specific substances involved.

Therapies Used in Inhalation Addiction Treatment

Family and group therapies are both very productive in helping people overcome their addictions. CBT, individual therapy, and spiritual therapy can also help you understand your addiction in different ways. This may give you the mental resources you need to recover fully.

Dual Diagnosis for Co-Occurring Disorders

Individuals with a dual diagnosis have co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders, which may include inhalant use combined with conditions like depression or anxiety. Those who have substance use disorders may be more likely to misuse inhalants. This condition also makes them more likely to become addicted. Both the addiction and underlying issues that may have contributed to the addiction must be addressed.

If you are trying to find treatment programs near you for co-occurring disorders, we have a rehab center in Queens, as well as a Brooklyn rehab center.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why Do People Use Inhalants?

Many people who use inhalants are teenagers and young adults who think it would be fun. Inhalant products are readily available and easy to use. Some may also use inhalants if they have substance use disorders and want to experiment with a new drug. 

Do Inhalants Have Any Medical Uses?

While many substances commonly abused as inhalants, such as paint thinner, glue, and gasoline, have no medical use, there are exceptions like nitrous oxide and nitrites, which are used in medical settings.

Are Inhalants Fatal?

Inhalant use can be fatal, and deaths may occur both immediately, known as sudden sniffing death syndrome (from heart failure due to inhalants like butane or propane), and over time from chronic misuse leading to organ damage. This is when a person drops dead after inhaling a certain substance, such as propane or butane. Chronic inhalant use can lead to serious health issues, including irreversible organ damage and failure, which may ultimately be fatal.

Break Free and Overcome Inhalant Addiction

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Sources

[1] NIDA. (2023, January 23). What is the scope of inhalant use in the United States?. Retrieved from https://nida.nih.gov/publications/research-reports/inhalants/what-scope-inhalant-abuse on May 25, 2023.

[2] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022e, September 29). High risk substance use in youth. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/substance-use/index.htm on May 25, 2023.

[3] NIDA. 2020, May 20. What are the other medical consequences of inhalant abuse?. Retrieved from https://nida.nih.gov/publications/research-reports/inhalants/what-are-other-medical-consequences-inhalant-abuse on May 25, 2023.