Inhalants are substances that contain mind-altering properties when inhaled. Inhalants are breathed in through the mouth (commonly known as huffing) or sniffed or snorted through the nose, and the high that people experience typically lasts only for several minutes. The most commonly used substances include glue, aerosol sprays, shoe polish, gasoline, lighter fluids, leather cleaner, room odorizer, paint thinners, spray paints, and even felt-tip markers. Inhaling these substances can cause seizures, comas, and even death. Although addiction to inhalants is uncommon, it is possible. Inhalant-related disorders include inhalant intoxication and inhalant-use disorder.
Inhalant intoxication is diagnosed when recent intended or unintended exposure to inhalant substances causes significant problematic behavioral or psychological changes. Psychological symptoms include belligerence, aggressiveness, apathy, euphoria, and impaired judgment. Physical symptoms include dizziness, poor coordination, slurred speech, unsteady walk, lethargy, slow movement or reflexes, muscles weakness, tremor, blurred vision, and stupor or coma. Intoxication typically clears within a few minutes to a few hours after exposure to the inhalant. Inhalants can have long-term effects due to inhaled chemicals that stay in the body and can cause damage to the kidneys, liver, nerve fibers, and brain cells.
Symptoms of inhalant-use disorder include having a strong craving or urge to use inhalants, having a strong desire to cut down on inhalant use, or making unsuccessful efforts to do so, spending a lot of time obtaining, using, or recovering from the effects of the inhalant, continuing to use inhalants despite problems they cause in major areas of life, such as work, school, home, or relationship, using inhalants repeatedly despite their being physically hazardous, needing an increasing amount of the inhalant to become intoxicated or reach the desired effect.
Many abused inhalants are common household goods that are readily available and relatively inexpensive, giving easy access to anyone looking for a cheap high. The majority of inhalant users are under the age of 18, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and these substances are more commonly used by younger adolescents than by older teenagers. Inhalant abuse is often associated with poverty, family dysfunction, and child abuse. Since inhalants provide a very short "high," users often inhale the product repeatedly. Unfortunately, inhaling the vapors of these products is extremely harmful, even with one-time or occasional use. Some of the chemicals in these products can also be addictive.
The best ways to prevent, intervene with, and treat inhalant abuse are not clear; this is a category of substance abuse where more research is needed. Although educational campaigns and the enactment of laws that make it illegal to sell certain inhalants to children under the age of 18 have helped lower the statistics, inhalants are still commonly abused. In emergency settings, doctors and first responders must often first treat the seizures and heart stoppage caused by inhalant overdose. Extended treatment that includes cognitive behavioral therapy and/or family therapy can be helpful for both addicts and loved ones.
NIH National Institute on Drug Abuse. Inhalants. Last updated December 2012. Accessed July 2017.
Baydala L. Inhalant Abuse. Paediatrics & Child Health. September 2010;15(7):443-448.
American Psychiatric Association. Understanding Mental Disorders: Your Guide to DSM-5. 2015. American Psychiatric Publishing.
Last reviewed 02/07/2019