A Parent's Guide to Inhalant Abuse
Inhalants are chemical vapors that alter the mind when breathed in. These extremely
poisonous chemicals can cause death by suffocation and more commonly by triggering
electrical abnormalities in the heart (called sudden sniffing death syndrome). They
can also permanently damage the brain, liver, and kidneys. They can cause hearing
More than 1,000 household products can harm the body when inhaled. Most act on the
central nervous system. The National Institute on Drug Abuse organizes inhalants in these
Volatile solvents. These change to vapor at room temperature and include
paint thinners and removers, dry-cleaning fluids, degreasers, gasoline, glues,
correction fluids, and felt-tip marker fluids.
Aerosols. These are sprays that contain propellants and solvents. They include spray
paints, deodorant and hair sprays, vegetable oil sprays for cooking, and fabric
Gases. These are gases used in household or commercial products, but also include
medical anesthesia products like ether, chloroform, halothane, and nitrous oxide.
Nitrous oxide can be found in whipped cream dispensers, and products that raise
octane levels in racing cars. Household or commercial products that have gases
include butane lighters, propane tanks, whipped cream dispensers, and refrigerants.
Nitrites. These substances open the blood vessels and relax the muscles. Instead of
changing a mood like the other categories of inhalants, nitrites enhance sex.
Nitrites include cyclohexyl nitrite, isoamyl (amyl) nitrite, and isobutyl (butyl)
nitrite, and are commonly known as "poppers" or "snappers." The Consumer Product
Safety Commission has banned the sale of nitrites for human use. Even so, these
products can still be found being sold as "video head cleaner," "room deodorizer,"
or "liquid aroma."
Inhalants can be breathed in through the nose or the mouth in different ways:
Sniffing or snorting fumes from containers
Spraying aerosols directly into the nose or mouth
Bagging, which is sniffing or inhaling fumes from substances sprayed or placed
inside a plastic or paper bag
Huffing from a rag soaked with inhalant and held up to or stuffed in the mouth
Inhaling from balloons filled with nitrous oxide
When enough is inhaled through the nose or mouth, inhalants can cause intoxicating
effects. At first, users may feel slightly stimulated, then less inhibited and less
in control following more inhalations.
Sniffing highly concentrated amounts of the chemicals in solvents or aerosol sprays
can cause heart irregularities and death. High concentrations of inhalants also can
cause death from suffocation. This happens because inhaling concentrated chemicals
prevents you from breathing in any oxygen. If the lungs and brain are without oxygen
for a long enough time, you will suffocate and die. This can happen with huffing and
Death from inhalants can result from a very high concentration of fumes.
Deliberately inhaling a substance from inside a paper or plastic bag or in an enclosed
area greatly increases the chances of suffocation. A long session of inhalant abuse
can cause irregular and rapid heartbeats. A healthy young person can die from one
single sniffing session. This is particularly true for the inhalants butane, propane,
and aerosol chemicals.
Death also can be caused by:
Remain calm if you catch your child abusing inhalants. Immediately remove or push
the can, bag, or rag away and then stay with a conscious child in an airy room. If
the child is unconscious or not breathing, call for emergency medical assistance and
start CPR if trained to do so.
Seek professional help from a counselor or healthcare provider once your child has
Signs of abuse
These are signs of possible inhalant abuse:
Red or runny eyes or nose
Stains on the body or clothing
Sores or spots around the mouth or nose
Chemical odor or some other unusual odor on skin or clothes
Drunk, dazed, or dizzy appearance
Nausea and loss of appetite
Anxiety, excitability, and/or grouchiness, depression
Empty spray paint or solvent containers, especially if they have been hidden
Preventing inhalant abuse starts with education and awareness. If you suspect your
child uses inhalants, openly discuss the matter with him or her. Also stress that
they're deadly, poisonous chemicals.