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What Are Solvents?: How Household Chemicals Can Turn Deadly When Inhaled

March 1, 2022

The drug epidemic in the US has never been more deadly, and never before have more lives been destroyed by the countless substances that addicts turn to. When the subject of drug deaths comes up, many people see the numbers of those lost to drugs like heroin, cocaine, crack, meth, and pills, and think that as long as they can keep themselves and their families safe from those threats, that everything will be ok. But this is rarely the case.

There are substances that can be found in every garage, workshop, hardware store, convenience store, and home that are able to be abused by those looking for a way to get high. In fact, these household, solvent-based chemicals are not only cheap, but the effects they produce are very short-lived, so their users are constantly forced to use the substance over and over to retain the effects they crave.

These substances are solvents. We’re going to look at what exactly solvents are, and how they can be abused by even the youngest among us. Then we’ll also examine some of the dangers, risks, and signs of addiction to inhaling solvents. This article will give you everything you’ll need to know about inhaling solvents.

What Are Solvents?

Solvents are commonly used chemicals that are classified as solvents, and fill such roles as butane lighter fluid, some pressurized refrigerants, rust removers, and paints. They are often components in other products and are used to either thin the product, or to help it maintain a liquid state until the solvent later evaporates. These can be found all over the home, garden, office, and garage area.

There are people that will abuse solvents by deliberately concentrating and then inhaling the fumes from them. This has traditionally been called “glue-sniffing” after the tendency to use some solvent-based adhesives to get high, but can apply to any inhalants. The inhalation of chemical fumes is also called “huffing”, and is known to be one of the most common ways that young people become intoxicated, with the average age for huffing solvents being roughly 8th grade.

Even though using and abusing solvents is more common in younger individuals, this doesn’t mean that it’s limited to those groups, and huffing solvents can even be seen in kids under 10, and on into their teens. In some areas that are particularly economically challenged, inhaling solvents can stick with an addict into adulthood, producing some profound mental and physical injuries in those that have used them for many years.

Another indicator of addictive potential in young people with access to solvents is those with recorded histories of behavioral issues or delinquincy, documented physical or sexual abuse survivors, those in the midst of family conflict, and those with histories of criminal activity. 

Common Inhaled Solvent Products

There are countless products on the market that are harmful when inhaled, making them potentially open to abuse by those who are desperate enough to jeopardize their health. Most commonly abused solvent inhalants are things that are cheap, available, and of course, legal. Illegal drugs tend to be too expensive and limited to some areas, whereas those addicted to huffing can get something to inhale nearly anywhere. Some of the most frequently-used products include:

  • Paint thinners and paint removal agents
  • Nail polish removers
  • Degreasers and automotive cleaners
  • Gasoline
  • Lighter fluid such as butane
  • Glues and solvent-based rubber cement
  • Chemicals and fluids used for dry cleaning
  • Typist’s correction fluid
  • Felt-tip or permanent markers
  • Spray paints, particularly metallic colors or shades
  • Spray deodorant
  • Hair spray and other aerosol cosmetics
  • Kitchen spray and oil sprays
  • Fabric protector and waterproofer spray

These items are generally bought locally by the user, and then often dispensed into another container prior to inhalation. This is particularly popular for spray paints, where the users will often spray them into paper or plastic bags, then hold the bags over their mouth. This allows them to inhale the evaporating solvents from the spray paint in a concentrated fashion and with little waste.

Those that buy glues often will take similar measures to ensure that they get the most concentrated version of their fumes. This means putting the product is something that can capture the fumes, and be relatively resealable and commonly seen. Paper bags and balloons are two of the most commonly used containers for huffing solvents.

What Are The Side-Effects of Inhaling Solvents: Dangers & Risks

Many of the side effects of inhaling solvents come from the combination of the solvent fumes with the self-induced hypoxic state that users create. The fumes that are used in huffing and inhaling solvents are evaporated toxins and poisons, so inhaling them puts those gases into your blood, to be eventually, hopefully, filtered out of your blood by your liver and kidneys.

This places a lot of the damage on not only the liver and kidneys, for having to filter out so much from the blood, but also any place the blood would go. The brain sees a large impact from inhaling solvents since a lot of the solvent tainted blood goes to the brain, resulting in less oxygen to the brain which is bad enough, but then bathing the brain tissue in the chemical fumes themselves.

This can result in significant brain damage, not only to cognition, decision making, critical thinking, and problem-solving, but also to crucial areas like the memory center and areas responsible for creating, recording, and recalling memories. There can also be semi-permanent damage to the speech centers, meaning someone that gets addicted to inhaling solvents may develop a speech impediment that will be with them the rest of their life.

The lack of oxygen to the brain is also why there is a significant risk of overdose with inhaling solvents. The user could potentially inhale too much, and subsequently, pass out and not be able to get help. Inhaling too much can cause an immediate blackout, creating a gap in memory and a loss of consciousness for the user. This can sometimes be reversed with CPR and fresh air, but not always, and in some cases even when the solvent fumes are removed there is lingering brain damage that cannot be easily healed. The increased risk of an overdose situation is not one of the factors that those new to solvent huffing often think about, but it’s relatively common.

What Are The Signs That Someone Is Addicted To Inhaling Solvents

There are many signs that someone may be addicted to inhaling solvents, and most of them will be easily visible to those close to the individual. They will be especially visible to those who know what to look for, as the signs that someone is addicted to huffing are not really subtle. Once you see the signs, it’s urgent that the individual begin personalized treatment so that they can avoid any long-term or permanent damage.

Common signs seen in someone that has developed an addiction to inhalants include:

  • Significant changes in appearance, personal care, and hygiene
  • Persistent chemical smells or odors on the individual’s breath or clothing
  • Seeing paint or other residues on the individual’s clothing or skin, particularly in or around the mouth area which is common for those inhaling paint from bags
  • Very rapid changes in the individual’s friends and social circles
  • Changes in the hobbies or interests of the individual, often leaving behind things they’ve enjoyed for some time
  • Slurred speech that doesn’t go away with time, or that happens when you know there is no other cause for the slurred speech
  • Runny nose, nose bleeds or cracked and bleeding lips from the constant exposure to the solvent fumes
  • Ulcers or other irritation and sores that appear around the nose, mouth, or fingertips
  • Ongoing tiredness or fatigue
  • Periods of confusion
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Irritability and hostile behavior
  • Feelings of paranoia
  • Depression

There will generally be very significant shifts in someone’s perceived “normal” behavior when they begin abusing inhalants, and these shifts will quickly be noticed by those close to them. The biggest ones will involve the communication and socialization frequency with their old friends in comparison with their new inhalant friends.

What To Do If You Are Addicted To Inhaling Solvents

Becoming addicted to inhaling solvents can be incredibly scary and can even feel shameful to the individual battling the addiction. The best thing you can do if you or someone you care about is addicted to huffing solvents is reach out immediately for professional help. Breaking the cycle of addiction can be challenging with any substance, but with inhaling solvents there are special considerations that must be made.

It is vital that someone addicted to inhaling solvents get quality treatment when the problem is first encountered. The chance for relapse is incredibly high for situations like this where the object of addiction can be obtained nearly anywhere, so the foundation for recovery needs to be strong to prevent potential relapse behavior. Once that foundation is established the individual can look forward to a long and effective recovery.