Inhalant Basics

Unlike other drugs of abuse, inhalants are more than one type, and many of them are common household products that are available in most anyone’s home, garage or in hardware stores. Mostly comprised of legal substances and readily purchased over the counter without any type of sanction, their popularity is based on the ease with which they can be obtained. Inhalants are most frequently used by a younger population, ages 12-17. Because they are too young to obtain alcohol legally, kids often begin their experimentation with substances by inhaling products that are around the home. The most common inhalants fall into four categories.

  • Volatile solvents such as paint thinner, degreasers, gasoline, lighter fluid or dry-cleaning solvents
  • Non-volatile solvents such as correction fluid, felt-tip marker fluid and glue
  • Aerosol sprays such as hair spray, cooking oil sprays, fabric protector sprays, computer cleaning sprays and spray paints
  • Gases found in butane lighters, propane tanks, whipped cream dispensers and refrigerant gases; and medical gases such as chloroform, nitrous oxide and ethernitrites such as butyl or amyl nitrate, which is used primarily as sexual enhancement.

Methods for taking inhalants are to either inhale the product's fumes after placing them inside a plastic bag, or, as in the case of paint thinner and gasoline, inhaled directly from an open container of the substance. The fumes produce an instant high that can vary widely in how it affects the user. Depending on the substance being inhaled and the method of inhalation, along with other factors such as frequency of use and amount being inhaled, effects can range from mild to extreme. Some may appear to be intoxicated as with alcohol in small amounts, ranging to highly intoxicated. Others may experience hallucinations and symptoms of psychosis, depending on the substance and other factors mentioned.

Street Names for Inhalants

Common names inhalants go by are:

  • whiffers
  • whippets
  • poppers
  • snappers
  • Amy
  • lip smackers

Slang for inhaling include sniffing, whiffing, hitting up and bagging it.

Where to Get Inhalants

Inhalants are found everywhere. If you search your home, you will probably discover that you have some spare gasoline, paint thinner, lacquer and lacquer thinner, nail polish and remover, white out in your home office, spray cleaner for your computer keyboard, spray vegetable oil for cooking, whipped cream for desserts (in a can), glues and adhesives for household repairs, WD40 for opening sticky locks and other uses, varnish or oil based stains for furniture refinishing, and even inhalers for asthma and/or allergies that have propellants in them that can be used to get high. Even cleaning products such as furniture polishes and oil-based waxes can be inhaled. Evidence that may point to inhalant use might include used baggies that smell like the product being used, rags that are used to screen heavier substances being inhaled directly (such as gasoline or paint thinner), and disappearance of the chemicals mentioned above.

Side Effects

Side effects from inhalants are numerous, due to the wide variety of substances that can be used in this fashion. The most frequent and common among the majority of substances is intoxication similar to alcohol consumption, loss of perception and time orientation, loss of physical motor coordination, slurred speech and red or watering eyes. They may have a slight to noticeable odor of chemicals on their hands, face and/or clothing and stains from paints or lacquer, glue and the like. With longer term use, the sweat of the user may carry odors of the substances they are using. Health risks are from overuse or use under conditions that create a dangerous effect from the vapors of the inhalants, due to lack of oxygen and/or breathable air in a room used to inhale certain substances. Sudden death from inhalants is not uncommon but is believed to be attributed to other causes, since it is not always evident that inhalants have played a role in a sudden death. This is primarily caused when the user either suffers sudden heart problems from an overdose or unsafe conditions or from hypoxia, the condition where the blood suffers from severe depletion of oxygen and causes tissue death, which leads to fatal heart stoppage. This can occur when vapors overcome the user and there is a lack of breathable air getting to their lungs after inhaling a toxic substance. (This is most commonly seen in carbon monoxide poisoning.)

Signs of Usage

If you suspect that someone you know is using inhalants, there are signs that are indicators of abuse. The signs to look for are appearance of rashes or blisters around the mouth and nose of the user. These are from the toxic vapors that they are putting up to their faces in a plastic bag and many are toxic enough to cause rashes or burns with frequent use. They may smell like gasoline or solvents or other indications of chemical usage. There may be used plastic bags around the area where using occurs, these will have residue or smell of the substance being inhaled. Their behavior may be similar to someone who is drunk, but most often speech will be slurred, behaviors will be erratic. Long-term use will begin to show up as symptoms of brain damage and more serious side effects from the chemicals, such as deeper burns on the tongue, nose, throat and mouth areas. They may develop frequent sniffling, such as with allergies or a cold.

Withdrawal and Long-term effects

Inhalant withdrawal symptoms are not serious for most users. Long term damage to the brain can be caused from oxygen shortages suffered when inhalants are used, as well as severe liver damage. The substances are toxic in nature, so the body will suffer from metabolizing them over time. Several of the gases can cause burns to the lungs, throat, and mucus membranes of the nose and mouth. Because some of the substances are carcinogenic, it is possible for cancers to occur from long-term abuse of inhalants such as toluene or benzene. Solvent use, over time, may result in excessive NMDA antagonism, leading to calcium blockage of the neurons and stimulate cell death via apoptosis, a process that normally occurs only with damaged DNA cells.

  • Need Inhalants Treatment?

    Call our 24-hour helpline 844-343-4915

  • Questions?

    Have questions about Inhalants? Check out Inhalants Q&A

  • Not decided?

    Talk to an expert about your concerns by filling out our Consultation Form.