Inhalant Abuse and Health Hazards

The health hazards of inhalant abuse can be deadly

Inhalant abuse, how does it happen?

Inhalants can be breathed in through the nose or the mouth in a variety of ways, such as:

  • Sniffing or "snorting" fumes from containers
  • Spraying aerosols directly into the nose or mouth
  • "Bagging," which involves sniffing or inhaling fumes from substances sprayed or deposited inside a plastic or paper bag
  • "Huffing" from an inhalant-soaked rag stuffed in the mouth
  • Inhaling from balloons filled with nitrous oxide

Because intoxication lasts only a few minutes, inhalant abusers frequently try to prolong the high by continuing to inhale repeatedly over the course of several hours, a very dangerous practice.

Health hazards associated with inhalant abuse

Research shows that most inhalants are extremely toxic and the following health hazards can occur:

  • Chronic exposure can lead to widespread and long-lasting damage to the brain and other parts of the nervous system. Nerve damage can be similar to that seen in individuals with neurological diseases such as multiple sclerosis.
  • Chronic exposure can produce significant damage to the heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys.
  • Prolonged inhalant abuse can negatively affect a person\s cognition, movement, vision, and hearing.
  • Highly concentrated amounts of certain inhalants can lead to sudden sniffing death - heart failure and death can occur within minutes of repeated inhalations. Sudden sniffing death is particularly associated with the abuse of butane, propane, and chemicals in aerosols, and can result from a single session of inhalant abuse by an otherwise healthy person.
  • High concentrations of inhalants can cause death by:
    • Asphyxiation - vapors displace oxygen in the lungs
    • Suffocation - oxygen is blocked from entering the lungs when inhaling fumes from a plastic bag placed over the head
    • Convulsions or seizures - caused by abnormal electrical discharges in the brain
    • Coma - the brain shuts down all but the most vital functions
    • Choking - from inhaling vomit prompted by inhalant use
    • Fatal injury - from accidents, such as motor vehicle crashes, that occur while intoxicated

Hazards of chemicals found in commonly abused inhalants

amyl nitrite, butyl nitrite
("poppers," "video head cleaner")
sudden sniffing death syndrome, suppressed immunologic function, injury to red blood cells (interfering with oxygen supply to vital tissues) benzene (found in gasoline) bone marrow injury, impaired immunologic function, increased risk of leukemia, reproductive system toxicity

butane, propane
(found in lighter fluid, hair and paint sprays)
sudden sniffing death syndrome via cardiac effects, serious burn injuries (because of flammability)

(used as a refrigerant and aerosol propellant)
sudden sniffing death syndrome, respiratory obstruction and death (from sudden cooling/cold injury to airways), liver damage

methylene chloride
(found in paint thinners and removers, degreasers)
reduction of oxygen-carrying capacity of blood, changes to the heart muscle and heartbeat

nitrous oxide ("laughing gas"), hexane
death from lack of oxygen to the brain, altered perception and motor coordination, loss of sensation, limb spasms, blackouts caused by blood pressure changes, depression of heart muscle functioning

(found in gasoline, paint thinners and removers, correction fluid)
brain damage (loss of brain tissue mass, impaired cognition, gait disturbance, loss of coordination, loss of equilibrium, limb spasms, hearing and vision loss), liver and kidney damage

(found in spot removers, degreasers)
sudden sniffing death syndrome, cirrhosis of the liver, reproductive complications, hearing and vision damage.

Inhalants are highly toxic substances and inhalant abuse health hazards can range from minor irritation to organ failure and even death.