There are short-term and long-term health risks associated with inhalant use. The highly concentrated toxic chemicals in inhalants can have devastating effects on the body, even the first time you use them. With prolonged use, the brain, heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, and potentially the reproductive system can be damaged.
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How Long-Term Inhalant Use Affects the Brain
Continued use of inhalants damages the brain by depriving it of oxygen and by continually exposing it to toxic chemicals. This can cause a loss of brain tissue, called atrophy, which impairs:
- Impulse control
One of the areas of the brain affected by inhalant use is the hippocampus, which processes memories. Damage here affects the ability to learn new things and remember old things. The cranial nerves can be damaged causing blindness and hearing loss.9
The cerebral cortex, which is the gray, outer area of the brain, is also affected by inhalant drugs. In severe cases, you can develop:2,3,8,9
- Acute psychosis
- Personality changes leading to aggression, hostility, anxiety, and fear
- Suicidal thoughts
- Addiction to drugs and alcohol
Continued use of inhalants breaks down the protective outer covering that coats the brain’s nerve fibers and damages the peripheral nervous system. Like a broken electrical wire, this kind of damage short circuits how impulses are passed along resulting in:
- Loss of coordination
Severe damage can affect speech, walking, and bending and contribute to a loss of feeling in the limbs.
How Long-Term Inhalant Use Affects the Body
Because the liver and kidneys metabolize what the body ingests, they can be damaged by toxic chemicals in inhalants. Solid particles, called calculi, can build up in the urine, making it difficult or painful to urinate and you may also have an increased risk of:3,9
- Urinary tract infections
- Liver failure
There are many different kinds of inhalant drugs, and the specific chemicals in them can inflict unique damage on the body. The benzenes in gasoline can:
- Weaken the immune system
- Damage bone marrow
- Increase the risk of leukemia
- Affect the reproductive health system
The trichloroethylene contained in spot removers and degreasers causes:
- Liver disease
- Reproductive problems
- Hearing and vision loss.
Laughing gas (nitrous oxide or hexane) causes:
- Loss of coordination
- Altering of blood pressure and heart function
Toluene, which is found in gasoline, paint thinners, and correction fluid, causes the loss of brain tissue which results in:
- Cognitive problems
- Hearing and vision loss
- Loss of coordination
Nitrate use is associated with sudden death, immune suppression, and changes in the oxygen levels of the blood which can affect oxygen supply to vital tissues and organs.
There is also some research to suggest that using nitrates can lead to the development of tumors. Long-term inhalant abuse also increases the risk of contracting tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and other sexually transmitted diseases.3,5,7,9
Risk of Sudden Death and Overdose
At any time using inhalant drugs, even the first time, breathing can slow down or stop, preventing oxygen from getting to the brain. This is called Sudden Sniffing Death (SSD).
Because inhalant drugs are central nervous system (CNS) depressants, they slow down your breathing and heart rate. Inhaling too much can cause:
- Your breathing or heart to stop
- Heart attack
- Your kidneys to shut down
- Vomiting (which can lead to choking or suffocation)
- Seizures can occur
An estimated 100 to 200 people die every year from causes related to inhalant use.5
Huffing in an enclosed place with limited fresh air intensifies the effects and risks of SSD. These chemicals are also highly combustible and when not handled carefully can result in serious burns and death. Using inhalants with an underlying health condition like asthma increases the risk. Heavy exercise or physical activity after inhaling can also increase the risk of SSD from the heart suddenly stopping.
The high from inhalants is almost immediate but only lasts for a few minutes. This leads to huffing more and more substances to stay high and to mixing different substances. These might be different kinds of inhalants but it also might be mixing inhalants with other drugs, a practice that health care professions point out is extremely dangerous and increase the risk of sudden death.
Overdosing from using too much or a particularly strong inhalant is also a risk. An overdose usually starts with nausea and vomiting, then blacking out or becoming disoriented, possibly seizures, and then unconsciousness and death.5,6,7,8
A substance use disorder develops when you keep using a drug that you know is harmful and even would like to stop using. Deciding to use inhalants in situations that are dangerous or risky, such as drinking and driving or huffing inhalants in a closed room that lacks adequate oxygen is another hallmark of losing control. Finally, doing things that you would never do before becoming dependent on drugs is another aspect of losing control.
As you keep using, you experience cravings, think about using it all the time, try quitting or cutting down but then go back to using again. All activities during the day become focused on getting, using, and coming down from the drug and then starting all over again. Old friends and social relationships are dropped and replaced with people who use or sell the drug.
Cravings for the drug can occur at any time or be present almost continually but are almost always triggered by certain events, places, and people. One way to evaluate how intense the cravings for a drug are is to ask yourself if there has ever been a time that you could not think of anything else other than using.1,3
Increased Tolerance and Withdrawal
As you continue to use a drug, you become psychologically dependent and your body becomes physically addicted to it. Increased tolerance develops when your body needs more and more of a drug to get the same high because your metabolism has adapted to consuming the drug. This is very dangerous because you can take too much of the drug as you try to get high and overdose.
Withdrawal symptoms when you stop using are a signal that the body has become addicted to the substance. These are different from psychological cravings and involve:
When you are addicted, you are likely to keep using not just to get high, but also to avoid the onset of withdrawal symptoms.
Unsupervised withdrawal from some drugs can be life-threatening but new treatments and medications can greatly help people detox successfully. Withdrawal symptoms for inhalant abuse occur 2 to 5 days after stopping and include:9
- Muscle cramps
- Feeling like bugs are crawling on the skin (delirium tremens)
- Stomach pain
Recognizing the Signs of Inhalant Addiction and Abuse
It can be hard to recognize the signs of inhalant abuse because many of the symptoms can look like other diseases. Because most users are teens, mood and personality changes might be looked at as just a normal part of adolescence, especially if kids withdraw and become isolated from family and friends.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, a substance use disorder is present when impaired control, impaired social relationships, and withdrawal symptoms when stopping the drug are present.8
Signs that friends, family, and teachers can watch for include:
- Chemical odors on the body and clothes
- Paint and oil stains on clothing
- Burns on fingers and clothing
- Discolored fingertips and nails
- Rashes around the nose or mouth
Other symptoms include depression, anxiety, loss of concentration, forgetfulness, lethargy, headaches, and breathing troubles. Missing school and work and withdrawing from friends, family, and usual recreational and social activities are also red flags.3,6,8,10
While using inhalant drugs can do serious damage to the body, there is still good news. People with inhalant addictions can and do recover and benefit from cognitive behavior programs, rehabilitation, and participating in 12-step programs. And, with early identification, referral to treatment, and recovery, much of the physical effects of inhalants can heal.
If you are worried that someone you know might be using inhalant drugs, you can contact 800-926-9037 Who Answers? to find help.
What Are Inhalant Drugs?
Inhalants are substances that people breathe in to get high. Many household products have chemicals that when inhaled cause feelings of euphoria. These include:
- Aerosols such as deodorants, air freshener, and hair spray
- Gases such as lighter fluid, computer cleaning fluid, Freon, and nitrous oxide (laughing gas)
- Solvents such as degreasers, paint thinner, gasoline, and nail polish remover
Most of these products are easily found in your garage or kitchen cupboards. They are also cheap and easy to buy because they are not controlled substances. Nitrites, called “poppers or “liquid gold,” containing amyl nitrite are used primarily by older teens and young adults to heighten sexual experiences and are now illegal.
Inhalant drugs are “huffed” by breathing directly from the container, spraying the substance directly into the nose or mouth (dusting), or by first spraying the substance into a bag or balloon (bagging or ballooning) and then breathing into the bag. The chemicals are immediately absorbed into your lungs and then produce an immediate, but short-lived high. Because of this, you may try to prolong or maintain your high by repeatedly inhaling. This can lead to unconsciousness and even death, making it a very risky practice.1, 2
Because kids see adults using inhalant products every day, they do not realize how dangerous they are. Using inhalants drugs can lead to dependency and addiction and can severely damage your physical, emotional, and mental health. Because the chemicals in inhalants are so dangerous, they can lead to sudden death from the heart stopping, asphyxiation, or from fires and explosions.
More than 22 million Americans aged 12 and older report using having used inhalants.3 Use is highest among 8th graders, peaks at around age 14, and then decreases.4 About 6% of 8th graders and about 1% of 12th graders admitted to using inhalants in the past year.4 An estimated 0.2% of teens meet the diagnostic criteria for an inhalant use disorder.3 Despite the serious dangers associated with inhalant use, it remains one of the most poorly studied addictions and has been called the “forgotten epidemic.”3
- Alcohol and Drug Foundation, (2020, October 7). Inhalants.
- MedlinePlus. (n.d.) Inhalants.
- Howard, M.O, Bowen S.E., Garland E.L, Perron, B.E., & Vaughn, M.G. (2011). Inhalant use and inhalant use disorders in the United States. Addiction Science and Clinical Practice, 6(1).
- National Institute on Drug Abuse, (2020 December 15). Trends and statistics: Inhalant trends and statistics.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020, May 20). What are the other medical consequences of inhalant abuse?
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020, April 13). How are inhalants used?
- Medscape. (2017, May 5). Inhalants.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Substance-Related and Addictive Disorders. In Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th Ed.).
- Anderson, C. E., & Loomis, G. A. (2003). Recognition and prevention of inhalant abuse. American family physician, 68(5), 869–874.
- Brannon, G. (2019, Feb 19). Inhalant-Related Psychiatric Disorders Workup. Medscape.