The inhalants are a diverse group of substances that include volatile liquids and anesthetic gasses. Among them are gasoline and petroleum derivatives, toluene, acetone, methyl butyl ketone, nitrous oxide, ether, chloroform, trichloromethane, tricloroethane, and alcoholic solvents.
Inhalants are readily available commercially, and are found in many industrial settings. Spray paint, correction fluid, airplane glue, and waterproofing sprays are some of the more common compounds that can be found in any discount store.
Nitrous oxide is used as a refrigerant and as a propellant for whipping cream in the food service industry. It is also used in dental offices, where it is known as “laughing gas,” and is commonly used for surgical anesthesia.
Inhalants cause an immediate high which lasts for a brief period of time and is often followed by a headache or nausea.
The effect is similar to intoxication with alcohol, progressing from initial excitation and disinhibition to stupor and drowsiness after repeated inhalations.
Because they are cheap and easily obtained, inhalants are often abused by children and young teenagers. Inhalant abuse is also seen in rural and poverty-stricken areas. Native American and Hispanic youth are at particular risk. The abuse of nitrous oxide and volatile nitrates such as butyl and amyl nitrate are seen in more affluent adult populations.
The main problem with inhalants is toxicity. Short-term toxic effects include asphyxiation during inhalation and sudden cardiac arrhythmia. High doses of some inhalants can cause confusion, delirium, or pulmonary edema.
Long-term toxic effects include inflammation of the brain and degeneration of nerves both within the brain and in the sensory and motor nerves of the body. Damage to the kidney, liver, and lungs can occur. Degeneration of muscle tissue may take place, as well as damage to the part of the brain that controls balance and coordination. Loss of intellectual functioning (dementia) may also result from the use of some substances.
Inhalant abusers seen in treatment settings often manifest severe problems with judgment and personality. Abuse of and dependence on multiple substances, including alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine, is also frequently seen. Since the pattern of abusing inhalants often begins at a young age, these people are frequently profoundly deficient in social skills.
Addicts who begin in childhood miss out on the performance of many important developmental tasks.
Elizabeth Connell Henderson, M.D.
Appendix A: Regulation of Addictive Substances
Appendix B: Sources of Additional Information