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Inhalants aren’t discussed as often as other drugs are, which is unusual because the inhalants themselves are more common and readily available than any other drug. You only need to look around your house or workshop to find spray paint, markers, glues, and cleaning fluids. Any volatile substance that has psychoactive (mind-altering) properties serves as an inhalant.
Maybe their commonality is what makes conversations about drugs exclude inhalants because the drugs that are inhaled were never meant to be drugs. The same isn’t true of drugs like heroin and cocaine. Once simply called “glue sniffing,” the use of inhalants is marked by one thing: the route of administration.
Routes of Administration
Inhalants are used by either sniffing or huffing the fumes. Sniffing takes the vapors in through the nose and huffing takes them in through the mouth.
The volatile substance can be placed beneath the nose and the fumes inhaled or the substance can be sprayed into a paper or plastic bag, which is then sniffed or huffed. Another method of use involves spraying or pouring the product on a rag, sleeve, towel, or other piece of cloth and inhaled in that manner. Still other users paint their nails with a product and inhale the fumes from their nails. Aerosols may be sprayed directly in the mouth. Substances may also be heated and inhaled.
Items Used as Inhalants
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the following are all products used as inhalants:
Volatile solvents—liquids that vaporize at room temperature
- Industrial or household products, including paint thinners or removers, degreasers, dry-cleaning fluids, gasoline, and lighter fluid
- Art or office supply solvents, including correction fluids, felt-tip marker fluid, electronic contact cleaners, and glue
Aerosols—sprays that contain propellants and solvents
- Household aerosol propellants in items such as spray paints, hair or deodorant sprays, fabric protector sprays, aerosol computer cleaning products, and vegetable oil sprays
Gases—found in household or commercial products and used as medical anesthetics
- Household or commercial products, including butane lighters and propane tanks, whipped cream aerosols or dispensers (whippets), and refrigerant gases
- Medical anesthetics, such as ether, chloroform, halothane, and nitrous oxide (“laughing gas”)
Nitrites—used primarily as sexual enhancers
- Organic nitrites are volatiles that include cyclohexyl, butyl, and amyl nitrites, commonly known as “poppers.” Amyl nitrite is still used in certain diagnostic medical procedures. When marketed for illicit use, organic nitrites are often sold in small brown bottles labeled as “video head cleaner,” “room odorizer,” “leather cleaner,” or “liquid aroma.”
Based on information from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMSHA): in 2001, more than 18.2 million Americans reported ever having used an inhalant, and 141,000 were estimated to need treatment because they were dependent on or abused inhalants. According to the 2001 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse:
- 8.6 percent of youth between 12 and 17 had used inhalants some time in their lives.
- 13.4 percent of young adults ages 18–25 had used inhalants
- 7.1 percent of persons 26 and older had used inhalants
- 8.9% of white males have used inhalants in their lifetime
- 9.8% of white females have used inhalants in their lifetime
- 8.3% of Hispanic males have used inhalants in their lifetime
- 7.4% of Hispanic females have used inhalants in their lifetime
- 5.0% of black males have used inhalants in their lifetime
- 6.8% of black females have used inhalants in their lifetime
According to the article “Adolescent Inhalant Abuse: Environments of Use“:
- The median age reported for first-time use of inhalants is 13 years.
- Youths were divided between those who experimented with inhalants (27%) and those who were heavy users (27%).
- Huffing was preferred by 60% of youths.
- Of the youths, 52% reported using inhalants with friends present, whereas 34% used inhalants when they were alone.
- Sites where youths reported inhalant use include at a friend’s home (68%), at home (54%), on the street (40%), at parties (28%), on school grounds (26%), and at school (18%).
- The five substances most frequently used as inhalants include gasoline by (57.4%), Freon (40.45%), butane lighter fluid (38.3%), glue (29.8%), and nitrous oxide (23.4%).
Inhalant use is common and it is dangerous. Users can build up tolerances, develop cravings, and experience withdrawal.