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The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) define inhalants as products that are not typically used medicinally or for their psychoactive effects but abused in a manner to achieve some euphoric or psychoactive effect by inhaling their fumes or byproducts. Inhalants are often abused by younger people who inhale the byproducts or fumes from many different common products or alcohol. Often, this process is referred to as “huffing.”
According to the book Pharmacology and Treatment of Substance Abuse, there are several different classes of substances that are considered to be inhalants:
According to NIDA and SAMHSA:
Because individuals who engage in inhalant abuse are prone to continually attempting to inhale the fumes of their chosen substance in an effort to extend the psychoactive effects of the drug, the abuse of inhalants represents an extremely dangerous practice, and this practice represents a severe form of addictive behavior.
At this point, it should be mentioned that having an addiction, or a substance use disorder, is not the same thing as developing physical dependence on a drug. Physical dependence consists of having both the symptoms of tolerance (needing higher amounts of the drug to achieve its effects) and withdrawal (suffering ill effects or psychological effects when one discontinues using the drug). A substance use disorder represents the nonmedicinal use of substances that result in significant distress, impairment, or dysfunction in the individual. Individuals who use prescription medications for medical reasons may develop physical dependence on them, but if they are using the drug as it is prescribed while under the supervision of a physician, they would not be diagnosed with a substance use disorder. Individuals who abuse certain classes of drugs may develop physical dependence on them, or they may not develop physical dependence on them even if they qualify for the diagnosis of a substance use disorder.
The initial effects associated with the use of most inhalants are very similar to the effects associated with intoxication on alcohol. As the person continues to engage in inhaling the substance in an effort to extend these effects, they become far more intense and dangerous.
According to an article published in the journal Pediatrics, these effects can include:
The cognitive effects associated with inhalant use are most often associated with higher functions, including issues with attention, the ability to encode and recall new information, and the ability to inhibit impulsive behaviors. Individuals also display other serious issues with judgment, depression, anxiety, and mood swings that are also believed to reflect issues with brain damage occurring as a result of the chronic use of inhalants. However, in some people, signs of brain damage may begin to appear relatively early.
There is conflicting evidence concerning the development of physical dependence in individuals who abuse inhalants substances. The journal Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation reported that research with a large number of subjects who had abused inhalants indicated that half of the sample experienced three or more symptoms of withdrawal that were either physical in nature, such as sweating, nausea, vomiting, fever, chills, headache, and insomnia, or emotional/psychological in nature, such as mood swings, depression, hallucinations, or delusions. The data suggested that the symptoms the majority of individuals reported were relatively mild, but these individuals also began reusing their inhalant of choice to extinguish or avoid withdrawal symptoms. This practice suggests that individuals who abuse inhalant substances suffer from many of the compulsive and addictive behaviors that occur with the abuse of other drugs, such as alcohol, opiates, antianxiety medications, etc.
The use of a substance or drug to avoid withdrawal symptoms represents a compulsive behavior often associated with an individual who has a moderate to severe substance use disorder (addiction). This repeated cycle of behavior, using a drug to avoid the onset of withdrawal affects, exacerbates the individual’s impairment and dysfunction associated with their substance abuse. As this cycle of abuse continues, many individuals begin to experience serious effects associated with inhalant abuse. NIDA reports that there are some cases where individuals may have experienced seizures as a result of withdrawal from inhalants; however, most individuals primarily experience psychological and emotional symptoms during withdrawal from inhalants.
Because the consequences of inhalant abuse can be extremely severe, and potentially irreversible for some, it is important to be able to recognize the signs of inhalant abuse.
Indicators of inhalant abuse include:
Getting a child to admit they are abusing drugs is a difficult task for most parents. It may be a more productive approach for parents to organize a formal intervention with the assistance of a mental health professional or interventionist to address the issue.
Getting a person into treatment is only half of the battle. Getting them into the most appropriate form of treatment and helping them to remain in treatment can also be a daunting task. A treatment program should consist of:
People who abuse inhalants substances are at a significant risk to develop serious substance use disorders. Misuse of these substances is associated with a number of serious physical and emotional consequences, and the physical damage that may occur as a result of chronic abuse of these substances may not be reversible. It is important to identify inhalant abuse early and to get the individual into treatment as quickly as possible.