Inhalants are breathable chemical vapours that produce psychoactive (mind-altering) effects. Many do not think of inhalable substances as drugs because most of them were never meant to be used in that way.
Young people are likely to abuse inhalants, in part because inhalants are readily available and inexpensive. Inhalants fall into the following categories:
- Industrial or household solvents or solvent-containing products, including paint thinners or solvents, degreasers (dry-cleaning fluids), gasoline, and glues
- Art or office supply solvents, including correction fluids, felt-tip-marker fluid, and electronic contact cleaners
- Gases used in household or commercial products, including butane lighters and propane tanks, whipping cream aerosols or dispensers (whippets), and refrigerant gases
- Household aerosol propellants and associated solvents in items such as spray paints, hair or deodorant sprays, and fabric protector sprays
- Medical anaesthetic gases, such as ether, chloroform, halothane, and nitrous oxide (laughing gas)
- Aliphatic nitrites, including cyclohexyl nitrite, which is available to the general public; amyl nitrite, which is available only by prescription; and butyl nitrite, which is now an illegal substance.
Although different in makeup, nearly all abused inhalants produce effects similar to anaesthetics, which act to slow down the body's functions. When inhaled via the nose or mouth into the lungs in sufficient concentrations, inhalants can cause intoxicating effects. Intoxication can last only a few minutes or several hours if inhalants are taken repeatedly.
Initially, users may feel slightly stimulated; with successive inhalations, they may feel less inhibited and less in control; finally, a user can lose consciousness.
Sniffing highly concentrated amounts of the chemicals in solvents or aerosol sprays can directly induce heart failure and death. This is especially common from the abuse of fluorocarbons and butane-type gases. High concentrations of inhalants also cause death from suffocation by displacing oxygen in the lungs and then in the central nervous system so that breathing ceases.
Serious but potentially reversible effects include:
- Liver and kidney damage - toluene-containing substances and chlorinated hydrocarbons (correction fluids, dry-cleaning fluids)
- Blood oxygen depletion - organic nitrites (poppers, bold, and rush) and methylene chloride (varnish removers, paint thinners).
Death from inhalants usually is caused by a very high concentration of fumes. Deliberately inhaling from an attached paper or plastic bag or in a closed area greatly increases the chances of suffocation. Even when using aerosols or volatile products for their legitimate purposes (i.e., painting, cleaning), it is wise to do so in a well-ventilated room or outdoors.