Inhalant Abuse

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Inhalant Abuse

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Inhalants are substances that produce chemical vapours that, when inhaled, result in mind-altering effects. The term inhalant is used because these substances are rarely, if ever, abused by any other means. These substances are common household, industrial, or medical products that most people do not think of as drugs because they are not meant to be used in that way.

Inhalants commonly abused include:

  • Solvents (such as paint thinners and degreasers), gasoline, glues, and office supplies (such as correction fluids, felt-tip markers, and electronics cleaners).
  • Gases (such as household products including butane lighters, whipping cream aerosols, spray paints, hair or deodorant sprays, vegetable oil sprays, and fabric protector sprays).
  • Nitrites (such as a prescription medication called amyl nitrite). An illegal form of amyl nitrite, called poppers or snappers, is often packaged and sold in small bottles. Common room odourizers also contain nitrites that can be inhaled.

When inhalants are breathed, they cause alcohol-like effects: slurred speech, lack of coordination, and dizziness. The person can become light-headed and may have hallucinations and delusions. The effects last only a few minutes. After heavy use of an inhalant, the person may have a headache and feel drowsy for several hours. The person who inhales repeatedly over several hours can lose consciousness and die.

Aerosols can be sprayed directly into the nose or mouth. Nitrous oxide can be inhaled directly from balloons. Several terms are used for the way inhalants are breathed into the lungs, including:

  • Sniffing or snorting, when fumes are inhaled from a container.
  • Bagging, when fumes are inhaled from substances sprayed or deposited inside a plastic bag.
  • Huffing, when a soaked rag is placed in the mouth or held to the face for inhalation.

Long-term health problems, such as brain, liver, kidney, blood, or bone marrow damage, can occur from inhaling some substances. Long-term abuse of inhalants also causes:

  • Weight loss.
  • Muscle weakness and lack of coordination.
  • Disorientation and inattentiveness.
  • Irritability and depression.

Inhalants are often not detected with urine or blood drug screening tests because they have usually been eliminated from the body by the time the test is done.

Signs of use

  • Chemical odours on clothing or breath
  • Paint or other stains on face, hands, or clothes
  • Markers in pockets
  • Empty containers or discarded soaked rags or clothing hidden in the trash
  • Red eyes, irritability, frequent headaches, drunk appearance, and slurred speech
  • Nausea or loss of appetite
  • Sores around the mouth


By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Primary Medical Reviewer Andrew Swan, MD, CCFP, FCFP - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Peter Monti, PhD - Alcohol and Addiction
Last Revised October 13, 2010

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