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The Short-Term Effects of Inhalants

Inhalants definition: this term refers to a broad range of household and industrial chemicals whose volatile vapors or gases are concentrated and pressurized for various purposes. They are either gases at room temperature, or emit an inhalable vapor if they are liquid or solid. The term does not include any substance that has to be heated or burned before inhaling, such as tobacco, marijuana or crack.

There are a few inhalants prescribed by medical professionals, such as nitrous oxide (used to relieve anxiety and pain, usually prescribed by dentists). Nitrous oxide is also found in whipped cream cans, used as a propellant. But most were never intended for human consumption, being made for household or industrial purposes such as propellants, solvents, glues, and fuels. In addition to medical gases, there are three other categories:

  • Volatile solvents or fuels including acetone or ethyl acetate used in nail polish remover, to methyl acetate used in glue
  • Aerosols found in pressurized cans
  • Alkyl nitrites, known as poppers since they are sold in small vials that have to be popped.

Inhalants are easily bought and found in the home or workplace and contain dangerous substances that have psychoactive (mind-altering) properties when inhaled. They are mostly abused by those below the age of twenty and are the only class of substance used more by younger than by older teens. Poppers are the exception, being more popular with the twenty-plus crowd: often sold in nightclubs as air fresheners, these relax smooth muscle once in the blood stream, creating a rush and dilating blood vessels.

How Inhalants Affect the Body

Most inhalants depress the central nervous system and slow down brain activity. Short-term effects of inhalants are similar to alcohol and include:

  • slurred or distorted speech
  • lack of coordination (control of body movement)
  • euphoria (feeling “high”)
  • dizziness
  • stumbling and spasmodic reactions

Nitrites, which are sometimes prescribed to treat chest pain, can improve sexual pleasure by expanding and relaxing blood vessels. The effects are short-term, lasting a matter of minutes, so repeated use is commonplace. With repeated inhalations, many people feel less self-conscious and less in control. The user may feel light-headed or have hallucinations or delusions. Some may start vomiting, feel drowsy for several hours, or have a headache that lasts a while. Rashes may be caused where the inhalant has contacted the skin.

Health Effects of Inhalants

Most inhalants are toxic, with serious health effects, including:

  • liver and kidney damage
  • hearing loss
  • bone marrow damage
  • nerve damage resulting in loss of coordination and limb spasms

Chronic exposure to inhalants causes widespread and long-lasting damage to the brain and other parts of the nervous system. Chronic abuse of volatile solvents, such as toluene or naphthalene (the volatile ingredient in mothballs), damages the protective sheath around certain nerve fibers in the brain and peripheral nervous system.

Further complications or injuries may result from other chemicals used in the inhalant.

Inhalant abuse can be fatal: deaths have resulted from a lack of oxygen (hypoxia), pneumonia, cardiac arrest, and aspiration of vomit.

Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome can result from a single session of inhalant use by an otherwise healthy young person. It is associated particularly with the abuse of butane, propane, and chemicals in aerosols. These compounds can cross from the lungs into the bloodstream, inducing irregular and rapid heart rhythms and lead to fatal heart failure within minutes of a session of prolonged sniffing.

Abuse of inhalants during pregnancy puts the fetus at risk of low birth weight, skeletal abnormalities, and delayed neurological development.

Inhalants, as with many abused substances, can produce tolerance and dependence.

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