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How Addictive Are Inhalants?

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:

  • Volatile solvents: flammable products that can be inhaled to achieve psychoactive effects, including:
    • Any gases, such as helium, butane, or propane, that are inhaled for their psychoactive effects
    • Aerosol products, such as hair sprays, deodorants, air fresheners, and numerous other household products
    • Cleaning agents, including spot removers, degreasers, fluids for dry cleaning, etc.
    • Solvents, such as paint thinner, lighter fluid, gasoline, nail polish remover, etc.
    • Adhesives, such as glue or rubber cement
    • Food products, including cooking spray, vegetable spray, whipped cream in cans, etc.
  • Paint products: sometimes incorporated under the category of aerosols; includes spray paint, paint in cans, markers, etc.
  • Nitrite room deodorizers
  • Anesthetic products, such as chloroform, nitrous oxide, etc.

Facts and Features of Inhalant Abuse

According to NIDA and SAMHSA:

  • Inhalants are rarely abused in manners other than being inhaled (e.g., they are not taken orally or injected).
  • Approximately two-thirds of inhalant abuse occurs in individuals under the age of 18.
  • While inhalant abuse is still a potentially dangerous issue, this practice peaked in the 1990s and early 2000s.
  • Inhalants are abused in several different manners that can include snorting fumes from their container, placing the substance in a plastic or paper bag and then inhaling the fumes, inhaling the fumes from rags soaked in the substance, etc.
  • The data indicates that those who begin inhaling substances at a younger age (under the age of 15) will more commonly inhale the fumes from paint, glue, lighter fluid, etc., whereas those who begin inhaling substances over the age of 16 are more prone to using nitrous oxide products. Adults are more likely to inhale nitrates.
  • The psychoactive effects achieved from inhaling substances are extremely short-lived and do not linger for more than a few minutes. As a result, abusers repeatedly inhale the fumes in an attempt to extend these effects.

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 Effects of Using Inhalants

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.