What are inhalants?

Inhalants are a diverse group of volatile substances whose chemical vapors can be inhaled to produce psychoactive (mind-altering) effects. A variety of products common in the home and workplace contain substances that can be inhaled to get high; however, people do not typically think of these products (e.g., spray paints, glues, and cleaning fluids) as drugs because they were never intended to induce intoxicating effects.

  • Inhalants are the fourth most abused substance after alcohol, tobacco and marijuana among high school students.
  • A 1996 nationwide survey of students indicates that 21.2% of eighth graders have used inhalants compared to 23.1% who have used marijuana/hashish.
  • Chronic users can suffer severe and permanent brain damage; some die the first time they try it. Other possible risks include loss of consciousness and irreversible damage to the liver, kidneys and bone marrow.

  • Inhalants are a "gateway" drug leading to other illicit drug abuse. They are often the first substance young people try because they are legal, easy to get, inexpensive and difficult to detect.
  • More than 1,000 common, useful and legal household and classroom products can be misused to "get high."
  • Every year kids die from inhalant use but many parents and educators remain ignorant of this "silent epidemic."
  • Because the chemicals in inhalants enter the lungs in such high concentrations, they have a more formidable toxic profile than other types of abused drugs.
  • Inhalant highs are the result of intensive penetration of toxic chemicals into brain tissue, where they are capable of causing irreversible damage.
  • Besides brain, liver, lung and bone marrow damage, there is evidence that chronic abuse of some inhalants causes chromosome and fetal damage.
  • Youth with a history of chronic inhalant use have strikingly high rates of relapse. Because of the difficult problems associated with inhalant abuse treatment, these youth are specifically excluded from some drug abuse programs.
  • A University of Michigan study conducted for the National Institute on Drug Abuse notes that the recent increases in the use of inhalants, marijuana, LSD and stimulants are occurring across most sectors of society. They are not just concentrated in large cities, particular regions of the country or minority groups.

Signs of Abuse

There is a common link between inhalant abuse and problems in school -- failing grades, chronic absences and general apathy. Other signs include the following:

  • paint or stains on body or clothing
  • spots or sores around the mouth
  • red or runny eyes or nose
  • chemical breath odor
  • drunk, dazed or dizzy appearance
  • nausea, loss of appetite
  • anxiety, excitability, irritability
  • Harmful Effects

Potential long-term effects for chronic inhalant users include the following:

  • short-term memory loss
  • hearing loss
  • limb spasms
  • permanent brain damage
  • bone marrow damage
  • liver and kidney damage
  • possible fetal effects similar to fetal alcohol syndrome
  • intoxication