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Inhalants are a diverse group of substances that include volatile solvents, gases, and nitrites that are sniffed, snorted, huffed, or bagged to produce intoxicating effects similar to alcohol. These substances are found in common household products like glues, lighter fluid, cleaning fluids, and paint products. Inhalant abuse is the deliberate inhaling or sniffing of these substances to get high, and it is estimated that about 1,000 substances are misused in this manner. The easy accessibility, low cost, legal status, and ease of transport and concealment make inhalants one of the first substances abused by childrenThere are four general categories of inhalants:

  • Volatile solvents are liquids that vaporize at room temperatures. They are found in a multitude of inexpensive, easily available products used for common household and industrial purposes. These include paint thinners and removers, dry-cleaning fluids, degreasers, gasoline, glues, correction fluids, and felt-tip marker fluids
  • Aerosols are sprays that contain propellants and solvents. They include spray paints, deodorant and hair sprays, vegetable oil sprays for cooking, and fabric protector sprays
  • Gases include medical anesthetics as well as gases used in household or commercial products. Medical anesthetic gases include ether, chloroform, halothane, and nitrous oxide, commonly called “laughing gas.” Nitrous oxide is the most abused of these gases and can be found in whipped cream dispensers and products that boost octane levels in racing cars. Household or commercial products containing gases include butane lighters, propane tanks, whipped cream dispensers, and refrigerants.
  • Nitrites often are considered a special class of inhalants. Unlike most other inhalants, which act directly on the central nervous system (CNS), nitrites act primarily to dilate blood vessels and relax the muscles. While other inhalants are used to alter mood, nitrites are used primarily as sexual enhancers. Nitrites include cyclohexyl nitrite, isoamyl (amyl) nitrite, and isobutyl (butyl) nitrite, and are commonly known as “ poppers” or “snappers.” Amyl nitrite is used in certain diagnostic procedures and was prescribed in the past to treat some patients for heart pain. Nitrites are now prohibited by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, but can still be found, sold in small bottles, often labeled as “video head cleaner,” “room odorizer,” “ leather cleaner,” or “liquid aroma.


Most inhalants act directly on the central nervous system (CNS) to produce psychoactive, or mind-altering, effects. They have short-term effects similar to anesthetics, which slow the body's functions.

Inhaled chemicals are rapidly absorbed through the lungs into the bloodstream and quickly distributed to the brain and other organs. Within seconds of inhalation, the user experiences intoxication along with other effects similar to those produced by alcohol. Alcohol-like effects may include slurred speech, an inability to coordinate movements, euphoria, and dizziness. In addition, users may experience lightheadedness, hallucinations, and delusions

Prolonged sniffing of the highly concentrated chemicals in solvents or aerosol sprays can induce irregular and rapid heart rhythms and lead to heart failure and death within minutes of a session of prolonged sniffing. This syndrome, known as "sudden sniffing death," can result from a single session of inhalant use. Chronic exposure to inhalants can produce significant, sometimes irreversible, damage to the heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys


The chronic use of inhalants has been associated with a number of serious health problems. Sniffing glue and paint thinner causes kidney abnormalities, while sniffing the solvents toluene and trichloroethylene cause liver damage. Memory impairment, attention deficits, and diminished non-verbal intelligence have been related to the abuse of inhalants. Deaths resulting from heart failure, asphyxiation, or aspiration have occurred
A strong need to continue using inhalants has been reported among many individuals, particularly those who abuse inhalants for prolonged periods over many days. Compulsive use and a mild withdrawal syndrome can occur with long-term inhalant abuse. Additional symptoms exhibited by long-term inhalant abusers include weight loss, muscle weakness, disorientation, inattentiveness, lack of coordination, irritability, and depression.


1. Drug Enforcement Administration, Drugs of Abuse, 2005
2-5. National Institute on Drug Abuse, Inhalant Abuse Research Report, 2005
6. Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), Inhalants Street Terms
7. National Institute on Drug Abuse, Community Drug Alert Bulletin: Inhalants, January 2005
8-9. National Institute on Drug Abuse, Inhalant Abuse Research Report, 2005
10. Drug Enforcement Administration, Drugs of Abuse, 2005
11. National Institute on Drug Abuse, Inhalant Abuse Research Report, 2005
12. National Institute on Drug Abuse and University of Michigan, Monitoring the Future 2005 Data From In-School Surveys of 8th-, 10th, and 12th-Grade Students, December 2005
13. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance—United States, 2005, June 2006
14. ONDCP, Drug Facts: Inhalants, August 2006


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