Taking a Look at Inhalant Abuse and Addiction

Inhalant abuse is a serious problem among the younger generation in America. Kids who cannot access harder drugs turn to solutions that could already be sitting in your house.

Paint thinner, Hairspray, Dust-Off, Permanent markers. They’re products you likely have in your house already but when inhaled they provide a significant mind-altering high. Inhalants are various household products containing psychoactive chemicals. They’re not often thought of as drugs due to their everyday uses. However, when these products are inhaled they are referred to as inhalants with a dangerous potential for abuse.

Since they are so easily accessible, inhalants are often the first drug that teenagers with substance abuse problems use. While parents are worried about alcohol, marijuana, cigarettes, and prescription medications, they may not even realize that there are drugs sitting around the house already.

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What are Inhalants?

Inhalants are products commonly used around the house such as vegetable oil spray, butane lighters, white out correction fluid, or whipped cream dispensers. When used as intended, they have perfectly normal functions.

However, when the fumes from these products or the air from the cans are inhaled, they are referred to as inhalants. The effects of a single huff last for less than an hour but they come on within just a few minutes.

There are four types of inhalants and each category has various household products within it.

Solvents – liquids that become gas at room temperature

  • Paint thinners or paint removers
  • Dry cleaning fluids
  • Gasoline
  • Lighter fluid
  • Correction fluid (White-Out)
  • Felt tip markers and felt tip marker fluid
  • Electronics cleaners
  • Glue

Aerosol sprays – cans with condensed air inside of them

  • Spray paint
  • Hair or deodorant sprays
  • Computer cleaner condensed air cans (Dust-Off)
  • Vegetable oil sprays

Gases – chemicals that emit fumes

  • Butane lighters
  • Propane tanks
  • Whipped cream canisters or dispensers (whippets)
  • Stainless steel polish
  • Nitrous oxide
  • Ether
  • Chloroform

Nitrites – prescription medications used for chest pain

  • Video head cleaner
  • Room odorizer
  • Leather cleaner
  • Liquid aroma

Now that you realize how extensive the list of inhalants is, you most likely see that you have at least one or two of these items in your house. If you have teenagers and you worry about their behavior, keeping these items away from them or even locked up is a smart idea.

Street Names and Slang Terms

Since there is such a wide range of products used as inhalants, it only makes sense there is a large number of street names and slang terms for inhalants.


The act of using inhalants is called huffing or sniffing, named for the process of deeply inhaling the gases and fumes from various products.

“Bagging” is another term used when the fumes of an inhalant are captured in a bag. The Alliance for Consumer Education devotes part of their time and research to fighting inhalant abuse. They compiled a list of other street names and slang terms for inhalants, including:

  • Air blast
  • Ames, aimies, or amys (amyl nitrite)
  • Bullet, hardware, poppers, snappers, or quicksilver (isobutyl nitrite)
  • Whippets, laughing gas, or shooting the breeze (nitrous oxide)
  • Gluey (glue)

These are only a few of the many terms used to refer to huffing inhalants.

Everyday Household Uses

Anything that comes in an aerosol dispenser can, such as cooking oil, whipped cream, or room fresheners like Febreeze, can be used as an inhalant. If you have gasoline or paint thinner in your car, the vapors from these can cause a high when inhaled.

Shoe polish or stainless steel polish also produce toxic fumes that can be inhaled. Compressed air used for cleaning computers and other electronics is another dangerous inhalant.

The trouble with inhalants is how commonly they are found and how easy they are to access. You most likely have at least one item in your home that you can use to get high. For regular, everyday individuals this isn't a problem. 

However, if you have kids who hear about the enticing effects of huffing, you may want to keep these items hidden away. Not every child or teenager will experiment with inhalants. Still, it is better to remove the possibility of them trying to use these potentially dangerous chemicals.


Common Medical Uses for Nitrous and Nitrites

Some types of inhalants, used responsibly and as directed, are beneficial for medical purposes. Amyl nitrite is used to treat some heart diseases and is also used as part of the treatment package for cyanide poisoning. Isobutyl nitrite is another portion of the cyanide poisoning treatment package.

Nitrous oxide, or "laughing gas," is commonly used in dentists' offices to make certain procedures more comfortable. It does not put you to sleep but helps you feel calm and comfortable to keep you sitting still throughout the procedure.

Inhalants, as their name suggests, are coined as such due to inhaling something to get high. While some drugs such as cocaine, meth, or prescription pills can be insufflated (snorted through the nose), they are not considered inhalants. They are drugs that can only be taken by inhaling, huffing, or sniffing the substance.

How do people use inhalants? There are a variety of ways to huff these various household products:

  • Sniffing or snorting the fumes emitted from a container like a glue bottle or permanent marker
  • Spraying aerosol from aerosol cans (like compressed air for electronics) directly into the nose
  • Soaking a rag in chemicals and inhaling through the nose and mouth
  • Inhaling fumes from chemicals released into a bag
  • Huffing from balloons filled with nitrous oxide (also referred to as laughing gas)

So what are the effects of huffing inhalants? With such widespread understanding of the dangers inhalant addiction poses on brain development, why would people continue to use them? 

Inhalants directly affect the central nervous system. They slow brain activity and provide a euphoric feeling, sometimes described as being “launched into space.” The effects of each huff lasts for under an hour but effects usually come on within a few minutes.

OnAlong with the euphoria comes a few adverse side effects such as:

  • Impaired coordination and ability to move
  • Slurred speech
  • Dizziness
  • Lightheadedness 

Since they last for such a short period of time, many people take repeated huffs to make the effects last longer. Excessive use within a small timeframe can lead to more severe side effects, including: 

  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions (false beliefs about reality)
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Headache

Huffing nitrites expands and relaxes blood vessels leading to an increase in sexual stimulation. Because of this, poppers and whippets are commonly used to improve sexual pleasure and performance.

Nationwide Abuse and Addiction Statistics

793,000 people ages 12 and older in the United States tried inhalants for the first time within the past 12 months, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). Of these individuals, 68.4 percent were under the age of 18.

The Monitoring the Future survey, conducted by the University of Michigan, studies drug use among youth in the United States each year. They reported the following past-year inhalant use among students in various grade levels: 

  • 0 percent of 8th graders
  • 5 percent of 10th graders
  • 2 percent of 12th graders

Huffing inhalants was much more prevalent in the 1990s and use has decreased dramatically since then. The National Capital Poison Center reports a 33 percent drop in inhalant poisoning cases during the 10-year period between 1998 and 2008.

Additionally, the NCPC revealed the highest number of poisoning cases to be among children ages 12 to 17. The data shows that huffing is most popular among young teenagers and the prevalence of use decreases as they age. This is due likely to their switching to other types of drugs rather than relying upon huffing to get high.

Is Huffing Illegal?

Inhalants have yet to be scheduled under the Drug Enforcement Agency’s Controlled Substances Act. However, 38 states enforce restrictions on the sale of many products that can be used and abused as inhalants. Most of these states do not allow the sale of these types of products to minors.

Other states enforce fines, jail time, or treatment programs for those involved in the sale or distribution as well as the possession or use of inhalants. There are no nationwide laws; each state handles its regulations regarding these types of drugs. For example, some states have made the recreational use of nitrous oxide illegal.

How Long-Term Inhalant Abuse Affects the Body

As with all drugs, long-term huffing addiction leads to negative consequences both physically and mentally. Since many inhalants are dangerous fumes from things like gasoline or stainless steel polish, the chemicals impact the brain directly. 

Long-term sniffing and huffing can lead to:

  • Liver damage
  • Kidney damage
  • Hearing loss
  • Damage to bone marrow
  • Loss of coordination
  • Nerve damage
  • Limb spasms
  • Delayed behavioral development (as a result of direct impact on the brain)
  • Brain damage (due to the cut-off of oxygen flow to the brain) 

Those who use nitrites for sexual purposes also often participate in unsafe sexual behavior. As a result, they experience increased chances of sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis.

As mentioned above, the National Capital Poison Center reported cases of poisoning from huffing or sniffing. Individuals who huff too many inhalants within a short time frame can overdose in every traditional sense of the word. The toxic reaction that takes place in the brain can cause seizures or coma, and some can even be fatal.

The chemicals contained in substances such as aerosol sprays or solvents are heavily concentrated. This means there is a large amount of chemicals contained within them. When someone ingests substantial amounts of these concentrated chemicals, overdose is dangerously possible. There is even the possibility of sudden heart failure, referred to as “sudden sniffing death.”

The best way to prevent inhalant abuse among youth is to keep your potentially dangerous products away from children. While states do the best they can to limit access to inhalants by youth and teenagers, parents must pay attention to the items in their house.

Again, keeping products like aerosol cans, gasoline, polish, or glue put away can keep your teenager from using them as a drug. Stay aware of these items and your stock of them around the house.

Treatment for Inhalant Abuse

Addiction treatment for inhalant abuse is available. While the withdrawal symptoms may not be as severe as other drugs, the ease of access makes relapse common. Detox for inhalants abuse is not necessarily required. However, sending your loved one to treatment for their drug abuse can help them better understand addiction.

During treatment, they will be introduced alternatives to using and abusing inhalants. Whether it’s an inpatient rehabilitation program, an intensive outpatient program, or sober living, there are many options for inhalant abuse treatment available.

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