Running on Fumes: A Decidedly Non-Glamorous Drug Poses Real Risks

Running on Fumes: A Decidedly Non-Glamorous Drug Poses Real Risks

It doesn’t get the high-profile media attention that the opiate epidemic has, and it’s not the drug of choice among the club and party set (at least not usually), however it is often widely available in any household and more than 22 million people aged 12 and older have at least tried it.

We’re talking about inhalants – a class of drug that includes everything from nitrous oxide to the solvents and propellant chemicals in hairspray and other aerosols. While they’re not often the first thing that comes to mind when people talk about substance abuse, inhalants are extremely dangerous and can cause hallucinations, dissociation, seizures, brain damage and, in some cases, death.

A Brief History

Inhalants are not at all new. The practice of inhaling fumes from spices, oils, and perfumes has been around since ancient times. Chemically derived inhalant use gained increased popularity in the 1800s after it became apparent that nitrous oxide had euphoric and anesthetic properties. In those days, it was sometimes a substance used at elite parties, and the use of ether and medical numbing agents continued into the days of Prohibition as a substitute for alcohol which had become illegal.

The accessibility – and legality – of many inhalants has continued to make them popular today, particularly among teens and younger adults. That’s also one of the things that makes them so ripe for abuse. Inhalants are now virtually ubiquitous – found in items as commonplace as magic markers, computer duster spray, nail polish, deodorants, and spray paint. “They’re legal and cheap,” says Anthony Campbell, medical officer of the Division of Pharmacologic Therapy for SAMHSA’s Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. “Those are the main reasons why adolescents find them appealing.”

Between 5 and 10 percent of eighth-graders, 10th-graders and 12th-graders have tried inhalants in their lifetime, according to the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) 2016 Monitoring the Future  (MTF) survey released this last year. Although traditionally very popular among young people who may not be able to easily get their hands on other drugs of abuse, that trend is changing.

A national report from SAMHSA shows the number of people admitted to treatment programs because of an addiction to inhalants declined from nearly 1,200 in 2004 to less than 800 in 2014. However, the portion of those people who are 18 years or older increased rather dramatically from 56 percent in 2004 to 88 percent in 2014.

What They Are

The most common inhalants include:

  • Volatile solvents that vaporize at room temperatures, like liquid household and industrial cleaning products.
  • Aerosols that contain propellants and solvents, such as spray paint, deodorants, hairspray, keyboard cleaner and vegetable oil sprays.
  • Gases that are found in household or commercial products, including propane lighters, cans of whipped cream and freon.
  • Nitrites, commonly known as “poppers,” are industrial-grade chemicals used in odorizers and leather cleaners. 

How They Are Used

Inhalant use is often referred to as huffing, because inhalants are breathed into the lungs either by spraying them into the nose, or by soaking a piece of cloth and holding the cloth up to the face. Other methods for ingesting inhalants include:

  • Sniffing or snorting, in which fumes are inhaled directly from the container
  • Bagging, in which the inhalant is soaked into a bag, then the fumes are inhaled
  • Spraying, typically for aerosols, in which the inhalant is sprayed directly into the nose or mouth
  • Inhaling, which involves putting the inhalant into a balloon, then inhaling the substance through the mouth out of the balloon

The High and the Risks

The euphoric “high” from inhalants typically lasts 15-30 minutes, with the most immediate and intense effect coming almost instantaneously. Because the high is relatively short-lived, people who abuse these substances often inhale several times over several hours to prolong the effect. Inhalants are typically “highly lipid soluble,” meaning that they can easily pass through vessels in the lungs into the bloodstream, then through the blood into the brain. It is unusual for drugs to so easily pass through the blood-brain barrier, so very high levels of inhalants can gather in the brain rapidly.

Most inhalants are central nervous system depressants, so signs of an inhalant “high” are most similar to alcohol or opioid intoxication. Telltale signs include slurred speech, light-headedness and euphoria, loss of inhibition and motor coordination, and extended periods of exhaustion or inactivity without normal cause. Inhalants have also been known to induce nausea and severe headaches.

What’s the risk, you may ask. Many have snorted a magic marker or glue in their younger days, not even looking to get intoxicated. True, but most who seek out inhalants and use them with regularity are looking to get high – and that high comes with acute dangers.

Because inhalants consist of strong chemical combinations, they are incredibly toxic – not meant for normal human ingestion. Some of the more serious consequences from use can include permanent damage to the brain and other organs or even death. Sudden death from cardiac arrhythmias has been reported even in teen inhalant abusers. Death from huffing can occur upon the first time of use or after prolonged inhalant abuse. And abuse over time abuse may result in serious and sometimes irreversible damage to the user’s heart, liver, kidneys, lungs, and brain. Further, inhalant users usually begin smoking, using alcohol, and using other drugs at younger ages and display a higher lifetime prevalence of substance-use disorders than those who do not use inhalants.

So, if you or someone close to you is using inhalants as an easy and accessible intoxicant, remember that these are real drugs of abuse and carry significant risks to a happy and healthy life. Reach out for help and support. And call 540-535-1111 if you think treatment may be needed. We’d love to help.

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