Inhalant Addiction: Side Effects, Detox, Withdrawal, and Treatment
Inhalants are breathable substances that produce mind-altering vapors. They can range from household products like markers, nail polish remover, or spray paint, to gases used in a medical environment, such as chloroform or nitrous oxide. These substances aren’t intended to be used recreationally, but people misuse them to get high.
Most inhalants affect the central nervous system and slow down brain activity. This produces side effects like euphoria, slurred speech, lack of coordination, and dizziness. Long-term inhalant abuse can also cause other more serious or life-threatening side effects.1
People may misuse inhalants in a variety of ways, such as by:
- Inhaling them through the nose or mouth
- Snorting the fumes from containers
- Spraying aerosol directly into the nose or mouth
- Sniffing fumes sprayed into a plastic or paper bag
- “Huffing” from an inhalant-soaked rag stuffed into the mouth
- Inhaling from balloons filled with nitrous oxide
The high that is produced from inhaling these substances typically only lasts a few brief minutes. However, many users continue to huff, sniff, or inhale for several hours at a time to make the high last longer.
Inhalant abuse first became popular in the 1960s when teens were sniffing glue. Today, these substances are still most frequently abused by young teens and according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the Monitoring the Future survey, 13.1 percent of 8th graders have used inhalants. Additionally, nearly 21.7 million Americans ages 12 or older have misused inhalants at least once in their lives.2
Although inhalants are not as commonly abused as other addictive substances like heroin or methamphetamine, they are just as dangerous. Inhalant abuse can cause addiction, overdose, and may also increase a person’s risk of contracting HIV/AIDS or hepatitis, as many nitrates are used to improve sexual performance.
Since inhalant abuse is so common, many states in the U.S. regulate and restrict certain substances that may be misused. For example, the majority of states prohibit people under the age of 18 from purchasing certain inhalants, require a form of ID to purchase inhalants, and/or record inhalant purchases with a log. All these restrictions and regulations are designed to keep teens from experimenting with inhalants and suffering potentially deadly side effects as a result.
Research has indicated that inhalants can be addictive with long-term use.3 Long-term users report feeling a strong need to continue using inhalants and they often do so compulsively. Consistent, long-term inhalant abuse can also cause mild withdrawal symptoms in users, which may encourage continued use.
One survey of U.S. adults found that, on average, inhalant users also used other addictive drugs at a younger age and were more likely to have other substance use disorders later in life when compared to non-inhalant users.3
Some common street names for inhalants include:
- Air blast
- Hippie crack
- Moon gas
- Poor man’s pot
|Nitrites (often labeled as…)|
Determining how long inhalants stay in your system isn’t as cut and dry as it is with other drugs like alcohol or marijuana. Unlike other addictive drugs, inhalants don’t show up on drug tests and can’t be detected in blood, urine, or hair. The high that is produced by these substances is felt almost instantly and only lasts a few minutes. As a result, it’s difficult to determine whether someone is abusing inhalants.
Instead of using drug tests to determine inhalant abuse, medical experts and addiction treatment professionals have to look for behavioral signs of inhalant abuse.
Inhalant abuse can be very difficult to detect, but some common signs on inhalant abuse may include:
- A chemical smell on clothing or breath
- Consistent cough and runny nose
- Watery eyes and dilated pupils
- Empty containers or rags that have been hidden
- Severe mood swings
- Nausea and vomiting
- Appetite changes
- Weight loss
- Paint/stains on hands, face, or clothes
- Rash/blisters on the face4
A person may also overdose on inhalants if they use too much of the substance. Inhalant overdose can cause severe life-threatening reactions, such as:
- Sudden sniffing death syndrome (heart stops beating)
Misusing inhalants comes with many harmful short-term and long-term side effects that can greatly affect a person’s quality of life.
Short-term side effects of inhalant abuse are those that can be felt immediately after use. These include:
- Impaired judgment
- Slurred speech
- Slowed reflexes
- Muscle weakness
- Increased heart rate
- A feeling of heat and excitement
Long-term side effects of chronic inhalant abuse can include:
- Weight loss
- Electrolyte imbalance
- Permanent damage to the nervous system
- Liver damage
- Kidney damage
- Bone marrow damage
- Brain damage
- Vision loss
- Damage to hearing
The side effects of inhalant abuse can be severe and should not be taken lightly. Studies suggest about 100 to 200 deaths per year can be attributed to inhalant misuse.5
Withdrawal symptoms can occur if a person becomes addicted to inhalants. This happens when a person develops a tolerance to the substance(s) and needs more to achieve the desired effects. Once the effects of the drug wears off, he or she may begin to feel withdrawal symptoms such as:
- Strong cravings for inhalants
- Mood swings (depression, agitation, anxiety, etc.)
- Inability to concentrate
- Body aches and pains
- Increased appetite
If you’re addicted to inhalants, quitting on your own may be difficult due to uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. In this case, a medical detox program can provide safe medical observation while you detox as well as medical treatment for complications, if necessary. Medical detox also provides clinical support for clients who are suffering from severe psychological withdrawal symptoms such as depression or anxiety.
The first step to overcoming inhalant addiction is admitting that you have a problem. If you have a loved one who is addicted to inhalants, no one can take this first step for them. They must be ready to admit they have a problem and accept help for it.
Although there are currently no medications that can block the pleasurable effects of inhalants, researchers have found that a combination of behavioral therapy (talk therapy) and one-on-one sobriety support can be highly effective in helping people get sober.
Long-term drug rehab can provide individual and group therapy to help clients understand the cause of their addictive behaviors and learn how to make positive changes. Family members and loved ones are also heavily involved in the process and are encouraged to attend family counseling sessions and workshops to process shared issues that are related to the client’s addiction.
Relapse is always a possibility, but staying engaged in a long-term treatment program can help prevent and manage any relapse episodes. Continuing care programs like IOP, sober living, and aftercare are also helpful support resources for people who are recovering from inhalant addictions.
Overcoming a substance use disorder takes time and professional treatment, but sustained sobriety is possible with the right support. If you are addicted and you need help, call (512) 605-2955 to learn more about your treatment options.
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