What Is Inhalant Use Disorder?
For most people, a shelf of household products is just that.
For others, it’s a dangerous source of relief.
Inhalant abuse – which includes the sniffing of fumes from household products, gas, glue, and other solvents – has been a way of escape for troubled people as long as these products have been available.
Worse, these chemicals are abused most often by children in their early teens. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), most inhalant abusers are younger than 25. Among school-age teens, NIDA says eighth-graders abuse inhalants more often than high school sophomores or seniors.
There is perhaps no other addiction that is stigmatized as often as inhalant abuse. That’s wrong. Although NIDA reports inhalant use disorder isn’t one of the more common substance disorders, it’s still a condition that is worthy of the same consideration and care as addiction to illicit drugs.
How Can People Get High Off Inhalants?
Many solvents are psychoactive when inhaled. They act as central nervous system depressants much like alcohol and have a sedative effect. Often, it’s not the product itself that gets people high – it’s the propellants and other ingredients the products are packaged with.
NIDA cites a study from 2007 which examined toluene, an industrial solvent that’s used in everything from airplane glue to compressed air used to clean keyboards. The study showed the solvent could activate the brain’s dopamine system – a neurotransmitter that acts as a reward chemical – much the same way other illicit drugs can.
Inhalants are used in a variety of ways. For example, with nitrous oxide, users discharge the gas into balloons and then inhale them. Other methods include spraying paint into a paper bag and inhaling the fumes, sniffing from open containers, or spraying solvents directly into the face.
What Kinds Of Inhalants Do People Abuse?
This group includes spray paint, one of the most commonly abused inhalants. Aerosols also include hair products, deodorant and cooking, and fabric sprays. Remember, it’s not always the product that gets people high – it’s the propellants.
This can include industrial gases like refrigerants and propane. More commonly abused are gases used in medicine, like chloroform, ether (exceptionally dangerous as it’s highly flammable), and nitrous oxide.
Used in medicine for heart pain and as a muscle relaxant, these inhalants are often abused as sexual aids. Although technically prohibited for sale, they’re often sold as cleaners or air fresheners.
This is the largest category of inhalants. This includes glue, gasoline, dry-erase markers, paint thinners, and so on.
Why Is Inhalant Abuse Dangerous?
Simply put, industrial solvents aren’t intended for human consumption. Sure, floor polish, air fresheners, and other household goods have pleasant smells, but they’re not meant to be directly inhaled from their containers.
Inhalant abuse disorder has its unique health risks. These chemicals can cause serious damage to the lungs, liver, and kidneys. NIDA reports even bone marrow damage is possible.
Also, solvents can damage the brain over time. Apart from oxygen deprivation, inhalant abuse damages the nervous system and harms brain development. Because of this damage, inhalant abuse is particularly risky for children, who sadly are also the most likely to experiment with inhalants.
NIDA advises inhalant abuse is both a sign and predictor of other forms of substance abuse. The agency cites a poll of over 40,000 adults which found inhalant users start using tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs at a younger age than most people. Additionally, inhalant users are more likely to abuse other substances throughout their lives.
Finally, long-term inhalant abuse can cause seizures and death. Research on solvents and other chemicals commonly used as inhalants has shown they’re incredibly toxic when introduced to the body. Solvents like toluene damage the brain’s nerve fibers, resulting in symptoms similar to multiple sclerosis. Damage to the brain and other organs from inhalant use disorder can be permanent, too.
Signs Of Inhalant Abuse
Like other forms of substance abuse, inhalant abuse has recognizable symptoms. NIDA says symptoms include:
Chemical smells on breath and clothing
Hidden empty solvent containers like spray cans
Paint stains on clothing, face, or hands
Inhalant addiction is relatively rare, but it does occur. Any psychoactive substance can cause addictive behaviors, and inhalants are no different. Fortunately, inhalant abuse is treatable. Given the unique health risks inhalants present – and their ready availability – finding an effective treatment program is extremely important.
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