Inhalant abuse isn’t often talked about when the subject of addiction comes up. However, even though it isn’t as widely reported as other addictions like opioids, cocaine, or alcohol, millions of Americans have abused inhalants during their lifetimes. Additionally, the consequences of inhalant abuse can be quite serious, even fatal in some circumstances.
What Are Inhalants?
Inhalants are a wide variety of chemicals that are typically abused by young people – children and teenagers. There are numerous types of inhalants that are abused, including aerosols, glue, markers, gasoline, paint, solvents, cleaning fluids, and more. Different age groups of abusers tend to use different inhalants. For example, kids between 12 and 15 years old are more likely to abuse paint, glue, fuels, and shoe polish, while slightly older adolescents (ages 16-17) tend to use aerosols and nitrous oxide.
Just as their name suggests, inhalants are consumed by inhaling substances through the nose or mouth, sometimes by using a paper or plastic bag to make it more concentrated. The high that is produced by inhalants is very short, which leads users to continue inhaling their substance of choice repeatedly over a period of time in order to prolong the high.
Inhalant abuse and addiction aren’t usually associated with withdrawal symptoms, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t dangerous. In fact, there are cases in which otherwise healthy users have died after a single use. Fortunately, there are effective treatment options available for people who struggle with inhalant abuse.
Are Inhalants Addictive?
Inhalants of all kinds have the potential for abuse, and they can cause dependence because of their effect on certain parts of the brain, including the reward system. When inhalants are abused, it causes the brain to change in much the same way as other addictive drugs. Inhalant use is most common in adolescents, though, who tend to discontinue use as they get older and move on to other drugs or alcohol.
The effects of inhalant use can be dangerous and, in some cases, permanent. Though they are thought to be less abused, inhalants are just as harmful as other substances.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Inhalant Addiction?
With such a wide range of substances included in the category of inhalants, the specific signs and symptoms that indicate their abuse can be different in terms of duration, appearance, and severity. But there are some common indicators that may be warning signs of inhalant abuse. The symptoms are often divided into categories, including physical, behavioral, psychosocial, and cognitive.
Physical symptoms of inhalant abuse:
- Drowsiness or dizziness
- Runny nose
- Watery or glassy eyes
- Nausea and vomiting
- Sores or spots around the mouth
- Irregular or shallow breathing
- Irregular heartbeat
- Lack of hygiene
- Muscle weakness
- Delayed reactions
Behavioral symptoms of inhalant abuse:
- Slurred speech
- Stumbling, swaying, or otherwise exhibiting reduced motor control
- Belligerent or aggressive behavior
- Engaging in dangerous or risky behaviors
- Withdrawing from friends and family
- Lying about whereabouts and activities
- Spending more time in secluded locations like basements or garages
- Possessing large amounts of paint, aerosols, glues, or other types of inhalants
Psychosocial symptoms of inhalant abuse:
- Mood swings
- Restlessness and excitability
- Unprovoked agitation, anger, or anxiety
- Anhedonia (the inability to feel pleasure)
Cognitive symptoms of inhalant abuse:
- Disorientation and confusion
- Poor coordination
- Poor judgment
- Inability to concentrate or focus
What Are the Health Risks of Inhalant Addiction?
Inhalant abuse can lead to serious short- and long-term health problems. The biggest risk, of course, is death, which can result from the very first use or from complications of use many years later. Huffing or sniffing toxic substances like paint thinners or glue can lead to heart failure due to overstimulation of the muscle or tissue death, or users can actually suffocate because inhalants are absorbed in their lungs quicker than oxygen, and they displace oxygen in the system. This is called sudden sniffing death syndrome, and it can happen the first time someone uses an inhalant.
Once inhalants have accumulated in the brain, respiratory function, heart function, and other bodily processes may cease, which can result in coma or death. Additionally, the buildup of toxic inhalants can lead to permanent brain damage that can significantly reduce the quality of life and result in early death.
The common short-term effects of inhalant abuse are:
- Muscle weakness
- Emotional changes, including depression, apathy, irritability, aggression, or belligerence
- Impaired judgment
- Inability to function in social groups
The common long-term effects of inhalant abuse are:
- Brain damage
- Hearing or vision loss
- Liver or kidney damage or failure
- Bone marrow damage
- Oxygen depletion (inability of the body to reabsorb oxygen)
- Heart problems including irregular heartbeat, heart rhythm changes, or fluid buildup
Additionally, because many inhalant users begin abusing inhalants at a young age, they are more likely to drop out of school when compared to others who have not abused inhalants. Many kids who start abusing inhalants are also more likely to go on to use or become addicted to other substances like marijuana, alcohol, opioid drugs, and cocaine later in life.
What Are the Withdrawal Symptoms Of Inhalants?
While minimal relative to the withdrawal symptoms of other types of substances, there are some common symptoms that may occur when someone stops abusing them after a period of chronic use. The withdrawal symptoms include:
- Anxiety, panic, and mood swings
- Tremors or shaking
- Rapid pulse
- Emotional and physical agitation
- Nausea and vomiting
- Grand mal seizures, including convulsions, falling down, loss of consciousness, loss of bladder and bowel control)
How To Get Inhalant Addiction Treatment
With the many serious neurological complications that often arise from inhalant abuse, it is critical that the abuse is recognized and treated quickly. Without proper treatment, inhalant abusers may suffer life-threatening consequences. Every high that is produced from inhaling toxic substances is a direct result of damage that has occurred. Brain damage, asphyxiation, heart attack, liver damage, and more is possible, if not likely.
Fortunately, recovering from an inhalant addiction is possible, though difficult. Many people addicted to inhalants, or other substances, cannot stop using their drug of choice on their own. With proper professional intervention and care from an addiction treatment program, users can recover from such addictions. Even teenagers and young adults who are struggling with inhalant abuse.
If you or your child is suffering from inhalant abuse, please understand that you are not alone. While taking the first step and asking for professional help can be intimidating, doing so is a decision that can change your life for the better, perhaps even saving it in the process. Don’t let another day go by abusing inhalants. Get the help you need, and you can begin a new drug-free life in recovery.