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 triggering a rapid, irregular heartbeat. This
is called sudden sniffing death syndrome. They can also cause death by suffocation.
And inhalants can cause permanent damage to the brain, liver, and kidneys. They can
cause hearing loss, too.
Over 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. They include paint thinners and removers,
dry-cleaning fluids, degreasers, gasoline, glues, correction fluids, and felt-tip
Aerosols. These are sprays that contain propellants and solvents. They include spray paints,
deodorant and hair sprays, vegetable oil sprays for cooking, and fabric protector
Gases. These are gases used in household or commercial products. But they also include medical
anesthesia products such as 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. They are
often called poppers or snappers. The Consumer Product Safety Commission has banned
the sale of nitrites for human use. But these products can still be found. They are
sold in small bottles with labels such as video head cleaner, room deodorizer, and
Inhalants can be breathed in through the nose or the mouth in different ways:
Sniffing. Sniffing or snorting fumes from containers.
Spraying. Spraying aerosol containers directly into the nose or mouth.
Bagging. Sniffing or inhaling fumes from substances sprayed or placed inside a plastic or
Huffing. Holding a rag soaked with inhalant up to the face or stuffing it in the mouth.
Inhaling. Breathing in vapors, such as from balloons filled with nitrous oxide.
When enough inhalant is breathed in through the nose or mouth, it can cause intoxicating
effects. At first, users may feel slightly stimulated. After breathing in more of
the substance, they feel less inhibited and less in control.
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. This is called sudden sniffing death syndrome.
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:
Stay calm if you catch your child abusing inhalants. Immediately remove or push the
can, bag, or rag away. Then stay with a conscious child in an airy room. If your child
is unconscious or not breathing, call 911 and start CPR if trained to do so.
Seek professional help from a counselor or healthcare provider once your child has
Inhaling nitrites or poppers can sometimes cause a deadly blood disorder (methemoglobinemia).
The blood becomes physically changed so that it can't deliver oxygen to the body.
The person's skin may look slightly blue or pale. Or the skin may actually turn blue
and purple from lack of oxygen. The person's blood may seem chocolate in color. Using
an oxygen facemask won't improve their condition. This is a medical emergency and
requires an antidote medicine. Call 911 right away.
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 abnormal odor on skin or clothes
Drunk, dazed, or dizzy appearance
Nausea and loss of appetite
Anxiety, excitability, grouchiness, or depression
Empty spray paint or solvent containers, especially if they have been hidden
Preventing inhalant abuse starts with education and awareness. If you think your child
uses inhalants, openly talk about it with them. Also stress that they are deadly,
poisonous chemicals. If abuse is occurring, get professional help for your child.
If your child refuses to get treatment, seek help for yourself so you can be prepared
to manage the situation.