Inhalant Abuse

September 14, 2011

Inhalants are chemical compounds and gases that induce a mind-altering effect when inhaled. Inhalants can be found in hundreds of different household and industrial products. One classification system lists four general categories: (a) volatile solvents (e.g., paint thinners, glues, correction fluid, nail polish); (b) aerosol propellants (e.g., hair care products, deodorants, paints); (c) gases used in medical anesthetics (ether, chloroform, halothane, nitrous oxide) and household or commercial products (e.g., butane lighters, whipping cream dispensers, refrigerants); (d) volatile nitrites (e.g., amyl and butyl nitrites, the latter of which is sometimes sold as a room odorizer). Solvents, aerosols, and gases act as central nervous system depressants. Nitrites, in contrast, act on vascular smooth muscles and are sometimes used to enhance sex, primarily by gay men. As a result, nitrite abuse is sometimes classified as a different phenomenon from other inhaled substances.

Inhalants are administered via “snorting” directly from the container, “huffing” via a saturated rag, or “bagging” from a paper or plastic bag. The effects of inhalants are similar to alcohol but may include euphoria, delirium, and hallucinations. Acute adverse effects include loss of coordination and central nervous system depression. Depending on the particular substance inhaled, as well as the frequency and extent of use, long-term effects can include brain, liver, and kidney damage, short-term memory loss, hearing loss, limb spasms, and bone marrow damage. Users of solvents and aerosol sprays are also at risk of “sudden sniffing death syndrome,” which can occur when the heart beats erratically.

Inhalant abusers are diverse but can be classified into three classes of users: (a) children and adolescents who are experimenting with inhalants; (b) adolescent polydrug abusers; (c) adult abusers. Unlike nearly all other classes of drugs, inhalant abuse is most common among younger adolescents and tends to decline with age. Early use may be related to the fact that many inhalants are inexpensive and readily available. The decline in use with age often reflects the fact that other drugs become available to older adolescents, who are also more able to afford them. Among older adolescents, inhalants may be abused in addition to other substances. Although inhalant abuse is generally seen as an adolescent phenomenon, sometimes it extends into adulthood. Adult abuse is an extremely underresearched phenomenon.

Since the 1970s, there has been a gradual increase of inhalant abuse among high school students in the United States. In 1975, lifetime prevalence among high school seniors was 10% and increased through 1994 to about 18%. Since then, there have been decreases with the 2002 hovering around 15%.

Inhalant abuse is differentially distributed across ethnic groups in the United States. African American youth have lower prevalence rates, compared to whites. In contrast, among some American Indian youth, inhalant abuse seems to be disproportionately high. In the 1980s, lifetime prevalence rates among high school students in some American Indian communities reached 32%. Recent research suggests that over the last decade there was a strong pattern of decrease in inhalant abuse in this population. Similarly, for a period of time there was a perception that Mexican American youth had much higher rates of inhalant abuse than non-Latino white youth. However, it was established that rates in this group are similar to those in the general population.

Earlier epidemiological data indicated that in the general population and among Mexican Americans, inhalant abuse was more common among males than females. Among Native Americans, this gender gap was much less significant. Recent studies report continued increase of inhalant abuse among females compared to males, a trend that has been observed in the use of other drugs.

Inhalant abuse is an understudied form of drug abuse. It presents a significant and particularly difficult challenge to drug abuse treatment providers since abusers comprise a very complex and dysfunctional group with high rates of delinquency and a wide range of psychological and social problems. Inhalant abusers are often found among individuals who have the fewest social resources and are the most marginal in a society.

Due to a persisting stereotype that most inhalant abuse occurs among males, there is little understanding of gender-specific health effects of inhalant abuse. It can be expected that inhalants, just like most other abused substances, have more adverse effects on women’s health, compared to men, which presents additional challenge to the treatment services that are often oriented toward male substance abusers.

SEE ALSO: Chemical dependency, Substance use

Suggested Reading

  • Beauvais, F., & Trimble, J. (Eds.). (1997). Sociocultural perspectives on volatile solvent use. New York: Harrington Park Press.
  • Beauvais, F., Wayman, J. C., Jumper-Thurman, P., Plested, B., & Helm, H. (2002). Inhalant abuse among American Indian, Mexican American, and non-Latino white adolescents. American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, 28, 171—187.
  • Crider, R. A., & Rouse, B. A. (Eds.). (1988). Epidemiology of inhalant abuse: An update (NIDA Research Monograph No. 85). Rockville, MD: National Institute on Drug Abuse.
  • Kozel, N., Sloboda, Z., & De La Rosa, M. (Eds.). (1995). Epidemiology of inhalant abuse: An international perspective (NIDA Research Monograph No. 148). Rockville, MD: National Institute on Drug Abuse.
  • Sharp, C. W., Beauvais, F., & Spence, R. (Eds.). (1992). Inhalant abuse: A volatile research agenda (NIDA Research Monograph No. 129). Rockville, MD: National Institute on Drug Abuse.

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