Marijuana is often seen as a dangerous first-time drug used by curious and rebellious children. However, it’s not the most attainable or threatening drug to which teens and pre-teens have access. Known as huffing, sniffing, and bagging, inhalants are among the most accessible drugs of addiction.

Chemicals that can be used as inhalants can be found in most households, typically in locations anyone could reach. Unfortunately, they can also be incredibly dangerous. Certain chemicals can cause serious medical complications and even death when they are inhaled into the lungs. 

This is why parents should be on the lookout for signs that their kids are using inhalants as well as signs of other addictions. Keeping a watchful eye on the chemicals that children come into contact with can prevent lasting injuries and even save lives during this developmental stage of their lives.

What makes these substances so hazardous and why are kids the most vulnerable?

What is Inhalant Addiction?

Inhalant addiction includes a wide variety of chemicals that are introduced into the body through “huffing,” or breathing in chemicals through the nose or mouth. Inhalants are huffed without the use of an external heat source. While marijuana and other illicit drugs can be inhaled, they do not fall under the inhalant category because they require heat to produce gas. Inhalants are either compressed air or volatile substances (which refers to substances that are gaseous at room temperature).

Huffing can also be called spraying (when inhaling compressed substances), sniffing, or bagging, based on the practice of placing substances in paper bags and inhaling.

Some examples of inhalants include amyl nitrate (poppers), nitrous oxide, toluene (a solvent used in paint thinners and other standard products), gasoline, propane, benzene, and methyl chloride. Because of the prevalence of inhalants in household items, they are often among the first drugs that kids used to experiment with drugs. In fact, teens make up the majority of inhalant users.

Because inhalants vary widely in their chemical makeups, it’s difficult to know what the effects of huffing will be. Inhalant users can experience anything from a mild headache to euphoria; however, some can lead to incredibly hazardous effects. The ubiquity of volatile solvents also makes it easy for teens to have access to potentially harmful drugs.

How Inhalants Work

Most inhalants are central nervous system (CNS) depressants and act as anesthetics, which means they work by hampering neurotransmitters that cause arousal and excitement, or they increase the activity of neurotransmitters that cause relaxation or drowsiness. Nitrates are unique among inhalants. 

Instead of acting as a CNS depressant, they dilate and relax blood vessels which increases blood flow. They were originally used to treat angina and chest pain. As a onetime legal and now illicit drug, they are often used to enhance sexual experiences because the chemical relaxes smooth muscles and creates a warming sensation.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), animal studies suggest that many inhalants operate in the brain in a way that’s similar to other more mainstream CNS depressants like alcohol and medical anesthetics. Other studies show that a chemical called toluene, that’s found in glue, spray paints, and nail polish remover can also activate the brain’s dopamine system. This means it may trigger the reward center in the brain, causing psychological addiction in certain cases.

What are the Signs of Inhalant Addiction?

It’s important to recognize the signs of addiction, especially since inhalants are so accessible for teens. Though apart from extreme symptoms and reactions to the chemicals, inhalant addiction can be easy to hide, but a vigilant parent may recognize some of the most common signs.  As with any drug use, one of the telltale signs is drug paraphernalia. Unfortunately, the items associated with huffing may be everyday household items that include:

  • Rags
  • Aerosol cans
  • Empty containers of chemical products
  • Paper bags

Since those things are so commonly found around the house, you’d have to look out for their excessive or out of the ordinary appearance. Some items may be out of place, for instance, a can of cooking spray in your child’s room may specifically stand out. 

The use of inhalants may leave other signs behind. Chemical products can often leave stains when dripped or spilled. Paint drips, grease stains, or other chemical markings can be a tip-off to huffing, particularly if you find those stains on a teen’s face, hands, or clothing with no logical explanation.

If teens have been experimenting with inhalant addiction, they may start to exhibit noticeable symptoms. For instance, inhalants may affect users’ coordination or make them confused and irritable. It may also cause slurred speech.

To prevent or stop inhalant addiction in kids and teens, be sure to discuss the risks with your children. Many kids may not recognize that certain substances can be potentially deadly rather than affording you a high with a few mild side effects.

Encourage your children to come to you with questions and concerns. If they believe you to be approachable when it comes to their curiosities, they may be more likely to open up to you if they have been thinking about experimenting with inhalants.

Commonly Abused Inhalants

Inhalants are relatively easy to obtain and use, even for children and teenagers. Because common inhalant substances are volatile, the chemicals produce fumes without the need for any heat source or paraphernalia.

  • Solvents – Household and industrial products often produce fumes that can be inhaled for psychoactive effects. Examples include paint thinners, gasoline, lighter fluid, and other cleaning fluids. Some art supplies may also produce fumes like markers, white-out, and glue.
  • Aerosols – Household aerosol cans can also produce dangerous psychoactive effects spray paints, hair products, body spray, vegetable oil sprays.
  • Gasses – Gases are one of clearest examples of volatile substances used as inhalants. Gasoline, butane (used in lighters), and propane are commonly found around households. Certain medical chemicals like ether, chloroform, and nitrous oxide can also be used, but they are far less common.
  • Nitrates – Nitrates are products are sold specifically as inhalants amyl nitrates, also called poppers, were a popular club drug in the 1980s and 1990s. They are typically sold disguised as other products like leather cleaner or room odorizer.

Inhalant Addiction Treatment

It’s not very common for inhalants to cause addiction or chemical dependency, but psychological inhalant addiction is possible. If your children have been using certain chemicals for a long time, they may experience some mild withdrawal symptoms such as irritability, insomnia, and nausea. In some cases, medical detox is the best option for safe withdrawal.

After detox, many inhalant addiction treatment methods can be effective for you or your child including cognitive behavioral therapy, family therapy, and group therapy in a residential or outpatient setting. Although there are a number possible treatment options, the best program will create a personalized combination of treatments based on your specific needs. We can help you find a treatment center that is ideal for your needs and personality.

How Dangerous is Inhalant Addiction?

Again, because of the variety of different chemical inhalants, the effects of inhalant addiction vary widely. However, there are a few common risks that can be applied to many inhalants. No matter the chemical used, inhalant addiction can be potentially deadly when inhaling fumes using a plastic bag. Using this method, you increase your risk of experiencing hypoxia, or a lack of oxygen.

When inhaling gas from high-pressure canisters, releasing it can cause it to cool quickly, freezing your throat. This is especially common when inhaling nitrous oxide. Fatal instances of inhalants are typically caused by pneumonia, cardiac failure, and aspiration of vomit while unconscious. Inhalation of solvents has also shown to cause brain damage that leads to parkinsonism, symptoms of tremors and rigidity also found in Parkinson’s disease.

You may experience other effects when using specific inhalants. For instance, people who inhale leaded gasoline can experience lead poisoning, toluene can damage the myelin in your brain, and benzene can cause cancer and bone marrow depression. Butane can also cause sudden sniffing death syndrome, which is brought on by asphyxiation and cardiac arrest.

Inhalant Addiction Statistics

  • 22.9 million Americans have reported abusing inhalants
  • 3.4% of children between the ages of 12 and 13 abused inhalants in 2015
  • 6.7% of adolescents reported inhaling felt-tip pens in 2015
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