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Inhalant Addiction and Abuse
Though inhalant addiction is not common, its effects can still be fatally damaging to those who are afflicted. Through prolonged use, individuals may develop a dependence on inhalants which can be hard to recover from due to the availability of the substances. Inhalant abuse is sometimes referred to as, “The forgotten drug epidemic.” This is because millions of Americans have abused inhalants at some point in their lives, but the consequences of this form of substance abuse are less reported as the consequences of other drugs.
Inhalants are volatile substances; the chemical vapors they produce are generally inhaled for their mind-altering effects. Other illicit substances may be inhaled, though “inhalants” specifically describes drugs which are characterized by the act of inhaling them. An inhalant may possess any of a wide variety of chemicals or side effects and be found in countless, everyday products. Often referred to as Whippets, Laughing Gas, Huff, or Hippie Crack, inhalant abuse includes the illicit use of cleaning products, aerosols, gasoline, glues, medical anesthetics, and more. While the amount of time that intoxication from inhalants last varies significantly between substances, the euphoric high lasts approximately 15-30 minutes at most.
Inhalants can either be inhaled directly, for example breathing in the fumes over a can of paint, or indirectly by using paraphernalia, for example soaking a rag in the inhalant and then breathing it in.
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Types of Inhalants
Inhaling substances is also known as “sniffing,” “snorting,” “bagging,” and “huffing” depending on the substance and method in which it’s inhaled.
Many inhalants are legal and can be purchased by individuals of any age, such as whipped cream or gasoline. For the most part, inhalants create feelings of euphoria by depressing the central nervous system (CNS) in the brain and spinal cord. The effect is similar to other CNS depressants, like alcohol and barbiturates. Studies have shown that inhalant abuse can lead to psychological dependence and addiction due to its effect on the brain’s dopamine system (the reward center).
Inhalants can be better understood by the categories in which they are usually found in household, industrial, and medical products. The classification system includes:
Volatile solvents are potentially dangerous products that appear in liquid form but evaporate at room temperature. They can be found in a number of household and industrial products like gasoline, paint thinner, dry-cleaning fluid, glue, and felt-tip markers.
Aerosol products, when abused, are “huffed” from spray cans. Spray paint, deodorant, hair spray, cooking oil spray, and fabric protector spray can all be misused as inhalants.
Gas inhalants include a variety of substances in medical, household, and commercial products. Medical anesthetics like ether, chloroform, and nitrous oxide (also known as “laughing gas”), along with whipped cream dispensers, butane lighters, propane tanks, and refrigerator canisters include commonly abused products.
Nitrites are different from other inhalants in the effects they have on the body. Instead of depressing the central nervous system, Nitrites dilate blood vessels and relax muscles. While other inhalants are used for their psychoactive effects, Nitrites are primarily used to enhance sexual encounters. Known as “snappers” and “poppers,” Nitrites are not for human consumption and are sold as “room odorizers,” “leather cleaner,” and “liquid aroma.”
Methods of Inhalant Abuse
There are a number of different ways in which people abuse inhalants. Some of the most common include:
Sniffing or Snorting
Fumes are inhaled directly from the container
The inhalant is soaked into a bag. Then, the fumes are inhaled.
Most typically done with aerosols, the inhalant is sprayed directly into the nose or mouth.
The inhalant is put into a balloon. Then, the substance is inhaled through the mouth out of the balloon.
Effects of Inhalants
The primary effect of most inhalants is the slowing of the central nervous system and brain activity. Similar to alcohol, an individual may experience:
- Slurred speech
- Loss of muscle control
- Feelings of euphoria
- Loss of coordination
- Severe mood swings
- Impaired judgement
Repeated abuse of inhalants may cause memory problems, false beliefs, and long headaches.
Long-term effects of inhalant use may result in:
- Liver and kidney damage
- Bone damage
- Hearing loss
- Nerve damage
- Brain damage
- Loss of coordination
- Vision or hearing loss
- Heart problems
- Brain damage
- Oxygen depletion
The brain damage caused by inhalant abuse is often irreversible. Once inhalants have built up in the brain, breathing, heart function, and other vital bodily functions can stop, leading to coma or death.
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Because the brain releases “feel good” chemicals when inhalants are used, the body may develop an addiction to their repeated use. An inhalant overdose may occur when an individual ingests too much of a substance and develops a toxic reaction (e.g. vomiting, asphyxiation, or death). As CNS depressants, inhalants possess the ability to sedate individuals—leading to unconsciousness. Many inhalants, with their potent mix of chemicals, can stop the heart within minutes, known as “sudden sniffing death.”
Spotting the symptoms of inhalant abuse early and intervening can prevent an individual from fatally harming themselves. Signs of inhalant abuse are:
- Chemical odors on breath or clothing
- Paint or other stains on face, hands, or clothes
- Hidden, empty spray cans or chemical-soaked rags or clothing
- Drunken or disoriented appearance
- Slurred speech
- Nausea or loss of appetite
- Inattentiveness or depression
- Lack of coordination
Of first-time users in 2010, 68.4% were under the age of 18.
The highest rate of inhalant use is among 14-year-olds.
There are over inhalant-related 150 fatalities in the US every year.
Seeking Treatment for an Inhalant Addiction?
Feeling the need to continue abusing inhalants, despite otherwise wanting to stop, can be a sign of inhalant addiction. Health problems and failure to complete responsibilities also typify a substance use disorder. For those seeking recovery, detoxing from inhalants can usually be done outside of a rehab facility. Withdrawal symptoms may occur after long-term inhalant abuse and may benefit from the supervision of recovery provides.
Inpatient and outpatient treatment centers may use cognitive-behavioral therapy to help patients through trauma resolution. This involves locating the cause of an individual’s addiction and developing coping methods for the future. If you’re ready to begin your path to recovery, contact a treatment provider now.
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