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Inhalants < Back

By Joshua Edgar


Inhalant is a term that comprises a wide range of gaseous drugs that are abused through inhalation. According to the 2015 Survey on Drug Use and Health, inhalant abuse has remained statistically similar over the past three years, with nearly 10% of individuals 12 years or older having used inhalants within their lifetime. The same study shows a sharp contrast in age groups for individuals that have used inhalants within the past year. In 2015, 6.8% of those surveyed between the age of 12-25 had used inhalants within the past year. In contrast, only 0.3% of people older than 25 had used inhalants in the past year. According to the Monitoring the Future Study, inhalant use has been on the decline with 8th, 10th, and 12th graders with “past-year use” being the lowest in 2016 for all groups since 1994.

How It's Used

There are three main categories of inhalants; solvents, aerosols, and nitrites. Solvents are liquids at room temperature that easily vaporize into gases; examples include paint thinners (like toluene or acetone), lighter fluid (naphtha), and gasoline.

Individuals will often pour these solvents into bags and breath in the vapors, or “huff” the gas to become intoxicated. Aerosols are compressed gasses that are used to create a mist or spray; examples include acetone in spray paint and halogenated hydrocarbons in computer dusters. Nitrites are a group of chemicals that contain nitrous oxide, a potent vasodilator. Examples of nitrites include “whippets” (nitrous oxide) the gas found in whipped cream canisters, along with “poppers” (amyl nitrite).

How It Works

The biological effects of inhalants are categorized into two groups; vasodilators and analgesics. The vasodilator properties of nitrites cause a sense of euphoria and increased sexual arousal by dilating blood vessels and allowing more blood to flow to the central nervous system and to the genitals. Nitrites can also amplify the effects of other drugs through vasodilation of blood vessels in the brain. The second group of inhalants (solvents and gases) act as anesthetics. When breathed in, the chemicals readily pass the cell membranes in the lung and the blood-brain barrier to produce their effects. Although the mechanism of action is not known for all anesthetics, they produce behavioral effects similar to alcohol intoxication. People will often have a rapid increase in euphoria before a reduction in the activity of their central nervous system leading to drowsiness, disinhibition and lightheadedness. Abuse of these chemicals have severe medical side-effects. Due to the high concentration of chemicals being inhaled, they can induce heart-rhythm irregularities causing “sudden sniffing death syndrome.” This syndrome is associated with aerosol and solvent use. In addition to sudden death, immediate dangers include suffocation, asphyxiation, seizures, coma, and an increase in injuries due to disinhibition. Chronic inhalation of volatile chemicals can cause liver toxicity (cirrhosis), cancer (leukemia), damage to blood vessels, demyelination of neurons, and bone marrow depletion. A further set of symptoms similar to multiple sclerosis can come about due to the reduced myelin sheaths around neurons.


According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, repeated use of inhalants can develop into an addiction. Withdrawing from inhalant use can induce; nausea, reduced appetite, sweating, issues with sleep and changes in mood. There is no Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved methods of treatment for inhalant use disorder. Although further research is required, cognitive-behavioral therapy and motivational incentives have been found useful by individuals seeking treatment for inhalant addiction. Cognitive behavioral therapy attempts to help individuals understand how their thoughts, feelings and behaviors interact to produce maladaptive responses to different stimuli. Motivational incentives use rewards to increase positive behaviors. An example of a motivational incentive could be financial compensation for abstinence from drug abuse.


NIDA (2012). Inhalants. Retrieved April 26, 2017, from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/inhalants

Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. (2016). 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Methodological summary and definitions. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Johnston, L. D., O'Malley, P. M., Miech, R. A., Bachman, J. G., & Schulenberg, J. E. (2017). Monitoring the Future national survey results on drug use, 1975-2016: Overview, key findings on adolescent drug use. Ann Arbor: Institute for Social Research, The University of Michigan

National Institute on Drug Abuse; National Institutes of Health; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.