Inhalant Abuse

The use of inhalants is becoming more and more popular. The act of using inhalants is sometimes referred as “drug sniffing” or “choofing”. Using inhalants, even if they are common household products, can be very dangerous and parents are often not really aware that it is happening. It is often young teenagers who use them. Find out more about what inhalants are, the health problems from using them and how best to help your children.

What are inhalants?

  • Inhalants are usually common products, easy to obtain, with some kind of “fumes” or gas that can be breathed in and cause changes in the body and/or mind.
  • They are usually not banned drugs; rather they are legal products that are quite safe if they are used as intended by the manufacturer.
  • Most inhalants are depressants. Depressants are substances that slow down the brain.
  • When people “choof” or “sniff” a volatile substance (something that evaporates into the air), the chemicals move very quickly into the lungs. From there they then go into the bloodstream, around the body and to the brain.
  • The chemicals in the blood slow down the messages in the brain and through the central nervous system. This is what gives the feeling of a “high”.

How are inhalants used?

  • Inhalants are breathed in through the nose or mouth.
  • Sometimes the inhalant is sprayed onto a cloth and inhaled from the cloth; othertimes it is inhaled from a container.
  • Some young people breathe the fumes from a plastic bag. It is very dangerous to breathe anything from a plastic bag – it can result suffocation.

What do people use to inhale?

The following are some of the things that are easily obtained by young people and which are dangerous to inhale:

  • Petrol (gasoline)
  • Glue (adhesives)
  • Paint and paint thinners
  • Hair spray
  • Cleaning fluid
  • Gas from lighters or barbecues (butane)
  • Nail polish remover
  • Felt pens
  • Cooking spray
  • Typewriter correction fluid
  • Oven cleaners

Nitrous oxide

Nitrous oxide is an inhalant that parents may not be aware of. Nitrous oxide is used by doctors and dentists as an anesthetic. It is also used in the food industry, as a propellant for some foods such as cream, which is sprayed on to cakes etc, and young people may be able to obtain nitrous oxide from these sources. It comes in small silver canisters. Nitrous oxide gives a “high” feeling because it depresses the nervous system. It also can cause dizziness, numbness, ringing in the ears, raised body temperature and unusual sensations. A person who loses consciousness and is still sniffing nitrous oxide (e.g. using it in a small space) can die very quickly. The gas replaces oxygen in the blood and affects the part of the brain that is responsible for breathing. If the person does not become unconscious and stops sniffing the nitrous oxide they can recover quickly. Long term use of nitrous oxide can cause deficiency in vitamin B12, anemia and nerve problems.

Effects from using inhalants occur very rapidly and may include feeling:

  • slightly drunk
  • less inhibited
  • excited and happy – followed by feeling sleepy
  • nervous and “jumpy”
  • sick
  • reckless – taking risks without thinking about the dangers.

Effects of inhalants on the lungs and throat

  • If the inhaled substance is in a pressurized can when the gas is released from the container, its temperature drops quickly, so if it is inhaled straight from the container it can cause freezing damage to the mouth, nose, throat and even the lungs. It can cause nosebleeds or bleeding, and soreness to other parts of the skin.

Other possible effects

  • Vomiting
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Slurred speech
  • Sore eyes or double vision
  • Diarrhea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Flu-like symptoms – runny nose, sneezing, coughing
  • Unpleasant breath – you may be able to smell the inhalant on their breath
  • Nosebleeds
  • Hallucinations (seeing or hearing or feeling things that are not there)
  • Sores around the mouth and nose.

Long term effects

Inhalants can do serious damage to the body if they are used over time. Over time users need to use more and more to get the same high feeling.

  • Ongoing feelings of tiredness, depression, confusion, irritability, or thinking that other people are against them (paranoia)
  • Brain damage
  • Hearing loss
  • If leaded petrol is used; the lead in the petrol can build up in the body and damage internal organs, particularly the brain.
  • Lack of co-ordination – not being able to use your body very well, e.g. write, hit a ball.
  • Damage to the liver and kidneys.
  • Drinking alcohol while using inhalants can make the damage to the body worse.

Inhalants can cause death by:

  • suffocation from inhaling from a plastic bag
  • choking on their own vomit
  • heart failure from hard exercise or a sudden shock after inhaling. This is one of the main causes of death from inhalants. The chemicals make the heart beat faster and the beat is not regular, then it can suddenly stop – cardiac arrest
  • injuries due to risk taking (such as lying on a road)
  • asphyxia – the inhaled gases can cause a person to die from lack of oxygen
  • suicide – from feeling depressed after a high.

Withdrawal effects

Most inhalant damage stops when the person stops using them. Withdrawal effects don’t usually happen unless the person has been using them very heavily. However petrol, cleaning fluids and aerosol sprays can cause permanent damage.