Short and Long-Term Effects of Inhalant Drugs

20146 Inhalants

Short and Long-Term Effects of Inhalant Drugs

glue, gas, sniff (solvents); whippets (nitrous oxide); poppers, snappers, room odourizers, aromas—some sold under “brand” names such as Rush, Bolt, Jungle Juice (nitrites)

What is it?

The term “inhalants” refers to chemical vapours or gases that produce a “high” when they are breathed in.

Most of the substances used as inhalants, such as glue, gasoline, cleaning solvents and aerosols, have legitimate everyday uses, but they were never meant for human consumption.

Inhalants are cheap, legal and easy to get. They have a high potential for abuse—especially by children and young adults.

There are hundreds of different kinds of inhalants, roughly dividing into four different types:

  • Volatile solvents: These are the most commonly abused type of inhalants. “Volatile” means they evaporate when exposed to air, and “solvent” means they dissolve many other substances. Examples of solvents used as inhalants include benzene, toluene, xylene, acetone, naptha and hexane. Products such as gasoline,cleaning fluids, paint thinners, hobby glue, correction fluid and felt-tip markers contain a mixture of different types of solvents.
  • Aerosol or spray cans: Hair spray, spray paint, cooking spray and other aerosol products contain pressurized liquids or gases such as fluorocarbon and butane. Some aerosol products also contain solvents.
  • Gases: This includes some medical anesthetics, such as nitrous oxide (“laughing gas”), chloroform, halothane and ether, as well as gases found in commercially available products, such as butane lighters and propane tanks.
  • Nitrites: Amyl nitrite, butyl nitrite and cyclohexyl nitrite (also known as “poppers”) are different from other inhalants in effect and availability.

Where does it come from?

Many inhalants are widely available as commercial products. It is hard to prevent their use because these products are found in many homes and workplaces.

Some manufacturers taint their products to try to make them less appealing to use as inhalants, but this has not prevented use.

Stores may refuse to sell certain products to minors or people who are intoxicated, but there are no laws that enforce this in Ontario.

What does it look ?

Solvent and aerosol products—on the store shelf, in the kitchen cupboard or in the workshop—would not be noticed by most people as dangerous drugs.

When solvents are used as drugs, they are either inhaled directly from the container (“sniffed”), from a soaked rag held to the face (“huffed”) or from a bag (“bagged”). Sometimes people spray aerosols into a bag or balloon and then inhale the gas.

Nitrous oxide or other anesthetic gases intended for medical use are contained in a gas tank; nitrous oxide is also found in whipped cream dispensers. Because nitrous oxide is pressurized and can be very cold, it is often inhaled from a balloon.

Nitrites are clear yellow liquids that are inhaled directly from the bottle or from a cloth.

Who uses it?

Most of the people who use solvents and aerosols are young—between 10 and 16 years old. Many try inhalants only once or twice, or use them only on occasion. But some people use heavily and may continue using into adulthood. Chronic solvent users are usually in their 20s.

Solvent use is associated with poverty, difficulty at school, lack of opportunity, problems at home and a high incidence of substance use in the family. A 2011 survey of Ontario students in grades 7 to 12 reported that 5.6 per cent had sniffed glue or solvents at least once in the past year. This same study showed the highest rate of use, 12.2 per cent, by students in grade 7.

A 2004 survey of Canadians (age 15+) reported that 1.3 per cent had used inhalants at least once in their lifetime.

Nitrous oxide is a drug of abuse available to many health care workers.

Nitrite use is most common among gay men.

How does it make you feel?

How inhalants, or any drugs, affect you depends on a number of factors:

  • your age
  • how sensitive you are to the drug
  • how much you use
  • how long and how often you’ve been using it
  • the method you use to take the drug
  • the environment you’re in
  • whether or not you have certain pre-existing medical or psychiatric conditions
  • if you’ve taken any alcohol or other drugs (illegal, prescription, over-the-counter or herbal).

All inhalants are absorbed through the lungs and travel quickly in the blood to the brain. This produces an immediate and brief intoxication. Different types of inhalants produce different effects.

Inhaled solvents usually produce an alcohol- effect, but with more distortion of perception, such as the shape, size and colour of objects, and distortion of time and space. New users may be initially excited, then become drowsy and fall asleep.

People who use solvents more often may feel euphoric, exhilarated and have vivid fantasies. Some feel giddy, outgoing and confident.

Physical effects may include dizziness, nausea, vomiting, blurred vision, sneezing and coughing, staggering, slow reflexes and sensitivity to light.

Nitrous oxide produces a dreamy mental state, loss of motor control, hallucinations and an increased threshold for pain.

Nitrites dilate blood vessels and relax muscles. The heartbeat quickens and blood rushes to the head, creating a “rush.” Nitrites also cause headaches, dizziness, nausea and flushing. Some men use nitrites during sex for the drugs’ capacity to relax muscles and promote blood flow.

How long does the feeling last?

Several breaths of solvents will produce a high within a few minutes of use. This high may last up to 45 minutes if no more breaths are taken. Some people continue to take additional breaths to sustain the effects for several hours. As the effects wear off, the person may feel drowsy and have a hangover with a mild-to-severe headache for up to several days.

The effects of nitrous oxide and nitrites are immediate and wear off within a few minutes.

Is it addictive?

They can be. Most inhalant use is experimental and occasional. However, people who use inhalants regularly can develop tolerance. This means that more and more of the substance is needed to produce the same effects.

Regular use also leads to a persistent craving for the high, which makes it hard to stop using. When regular use is stopped, withdrawal symptoms may include nausea, loss of appetite, tremors, anxiety, depression and paranoia.

Is it dangerous?

Yes. Inhalant use is dangerous in many ways. Most inhalants are highly flammable; recklessness with lit cigarettes and flames while using inhalants has caused tragic accidents. The different types of inhalants carry other specific dangers:

Solvents and aerosols

  • Suffocation: Solvents are often sniffed from a plastic bag, which is held firmly around the nose and mouth. People who use solvents sometimes pass out with the bag still in place and suffocate due to lack of oxygen. Choking on vomit when unconscious is also a cause of inhalant-related death.
  • Recklessness: Sniffing reduces inhibition and affects the way people feel about themselves and the world around them. It makes some people feel powerful, which has led to dangerous and destructive behaviour that caused serious harm. Others don’t get “high” when they sniff; they get depressed. Self-destructive or suicidal behaviour are common among people who use solvents.
  • Sudden sniffing death (SSD): Prolonged sniffing of highly concentrated inhalants can cause a rapid and irregular heartbeat, leading to death from heart failure. SSD can occur after only one sniffing session, and when stress or strenuous exercise follows several deep inhalations.
  • Serious health problems: People who use solvents regularly for a long time can damage their liver, kidneys, lungs, heart, brain, bones and blood. Sometimes this damage heals when drug use is stopped; sometimes it is permanent.
  • Fetal solvent syndrome: Use of solvents during pregnancy, especially chronic use, can result in premature birth, birth defects or stillbirth.

Nitrous oxide

  • Lack of oxygen: Sniffing pure nitrous oxide starves the body of oxygen. Some people have died this way.
  • Loss of motor control: People who use nitrous oxide while standing can fall and hurt themselves.
  • Frostbite: The gas is extremely cold as it is released from the cylinder and can freeze skin. In addition, pressure in the tank can damage the lungs.
  • Nerve damage: High levels of nitrous oxide use, even with adequate oxygen, has been shown to damage nerves. This can cause numbness, weakness and loss of balance.


  • Unsafe sexual practices: An increased risk of contracting HIV and hepatitis is associated with nitrite use.
  • Weakened immune system: Recent animal research shows that nitrites may impair the immune system that protects against infectious diseases.

What are the long-term effects of using it?

People who use inhalants over a long time may have bloodshot eyes, sores on the nose and mouth, nose-bleeds, pale skin, excessive thirst and weight loss. They may also have trouble concentrating, remembering and thinking clearly. Other possible effects include tiredness, depression, irritability, hostility and paranoia.

The long-term effects of inhalants vary depending on which inhalant is used. Heavy solvent use can result in numbess, weakness, tremors and a lack of co-ordination in the arms and legs.
Some long-term effects may go away when people stop using, but others are permanent.

When inhaled, solvents are carried by the blood and stored in fat tissue in the body. Internal organs that have high blood circulation and that are rich in fat tissue, such as the brain, liver and kidney, are particularly affected.

If inhalant use is stopped, damage to the liver and kidneys may heal, but damage to the brain is almost always permanent. Studies using scans of people’s brains after chronic long-term solvent use show that solvent use can cause the brain to atrophy, or shrink, which can severely affect thinking, memory and movement control.

Long-term use of solvents such as toluene or naphthalene has also been shown to damage nerve fibres in the brain resulting in a neurological condition similar to multiple sclerosis.

Inhalant use can also result in permanent hearing loss and damage to bone marrow.

Copyright (c) 2003, 2013 Centre for Addiction and Mental Health

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Inhalant Abuse: Signs, Symptoms & Treatment

Short and Long-Term Effects of Inhalant Drugs

Studies have shown that teaching adolescents life skills training in school has helped reduce inhalant use. Life skills training focuses on increasing self-esteem and communication, improving personal relationships, and managing anxiety and pressure.

Inhalant Abuse

Inhalants are chemicals found in certain household and workplace products that produce chemical vapors. These vapors can be inhaled to induce mind-altering effects. Inhaled substances are rapidly absorbed into the brain to produce a quick high.

Chronic abuse of inhalants can result in irreversible side effects, such as coma and even death.

Who abuses inhalants?

The peak age of inhalant abuse is age 14 to 15. However, abuse is seen in children as young as 5 to 6 years of age. In many cases, abuse declines by 17 to 19 years of age. However, abuse can continue into adulthood. Inhalant abuse is more common in males than females.

Higher rates of inhalant abuse have been reported in those with a history of physical or sexual abuse, delinquency, criminal behavior, depression, suicidal behavior, antisocial attitudes, family conflict, violence, and/or drug abuse. Rates are also higher in people of lower income, the mentally ill, those living in rural communities and those in communities with high unemployment rates.

Where are inhalant products found?

There are more than 1,000 commonly used household and workplace products that can be abused as inhalants. Inhalants are convenient, inexpensive, easy to hide and legal. There are four general categories of inhalants: volatile solvents, aerosols, gases, and nitrites.

Volatile solvents

Volatile solvents are liquids that vaporize at room temperature. They are used for household and industrial purposes. Examples of volatile solvents are:

  • Paint thinners.
  • Paint removers.
  • Degreasers.
  • Gasoline.
  • Rubber cement.
  • Lighter fluid.
  • Glues.
  • Nail polish removers.
  • Dry cleaning fluids.
  • Correction fluids.
  • Felt tip markers.


Aerosols are sprays that contain propellants and solvents. Examples of aerosols are:

  • Spray paints.
  • Spray deodorant.
  • Hair spray.
  • Vegetable oil spray.
  • Fabric protector spray.


Gases include medical anesthetics as well as gases used in household or commercial products. Medical anesthetics include chloroform, halothane, and nitrous oxide (laughing gas).

Nitrous oxide is the most abused of these gases and can be found in whipped cream dispensers and propellant canisters (often referred to as “whippets”). Nitrous oxide can also be found in products that boost octane levels in racing cars.

Other household products containing gas are butane lighters, propane tanks and refrigerants.


Nitrites are chemical compounds found in leather cleaner, liquid aroma and room deodorizers. Nitrites act directly on the central nervous system. They dilate blood vessels and relax smooth muscles.

The ability of nitrites to relax smooth muscle has made their use popular for sexual enhancement. Nitrites include cyclohexyl nitrite, isoamyl (amyl) nitrite, and isobutyl (butyl) nitrite.

They are commonly known as «poppers» or «snappers.»

When individuals abuse inhalants, they breathe them in through the nose or mouth in a variety of ways. They may sniff or snort fumes from a container or dispenser, spray aerosols directly into the nose or mouth, or place a chemical-soaked rag over the mouth or nose.

They may also inhale substances from a balloon or a plastic or paper bag. This is called “bagging.” Some abuse inhalants by pouring them onto a shirt collar or sleeves and sniffing them periodically.

The high from inhalants only lasts a couple of minutes, so abusers prolong it by repeating sniffing over several hours.

Some slang terms for inhalants are:

  • Poppers.
  • Snappers.
  • Glue.
  • Kick.
  • Bang.
  • Sniff.
  • Whippets.
  • Texas shoeshine.

Some slang terms for abusing inhalants are:

  • Snorting or sniffing.
  • Bagging.
  • Gladding.
  • Huffing .
  • Dusting.

How do you know someone is abusing inhalants?

Inhalant abusers may show such signs as:

  • Chemical odors on the breath or clothes.
  • Paint or other stains on hands, fingers or clothes.
  • Changes in behavior including apathy (lack of interest).
  • Significant decrease in appetite and weight loss.
  • Sudden change in friends and hobbies.
  • Rapid decline in school performance.
  • Poor hygiene and grooming habits.
  • Slurred speech.
  • Runny nose or nosebleeds.
  • Tiredness.
  • Ulcers or irritation around the nose and mouth.

Other symptoms may include:

  • Confusion.
  • Poor concentration.
  • Depression.
  • Irritability.
  • Hostility.
  • Paranoia.

Inhalants are not detected by routine urine drug screenings, so detection relies on the clinical diagnosis of knowledgeable medical professionals.

Clinical testing can show abnormal laboratory results, such as elevated liver enzymes. Blood and other tissues can be tested by gas chromatography technique.

Specific urine tests can trace benzene, toluene, and other similar substances when they are abused over a long period of time.

Treatment methods for inhalant abuse do not differ much from those used to treat addictive behavior. These treatments include individual therapy (cognitive behavioral therapy), family therapy, activity and engagement programs, and aftercare (including support groups).

  • Cognitive behavior therapy: This therapy includes teaching how to handle stressful situations, coping with cravings, and resisting offers to use inhalants.
  • Motivational interventions: This counselling style helps teens gain their own motivation to commit to change.
  • Family counselling: This therapy focuses on improving communication, relationships, actions and behaviors between family members.
  • Activity and engagement programs: These programs provide new skills and social experiences and offer an alternative choice to inhalant use. Programs include such activities as movie nights, dances, hiking, and more. These types of programs play an important role in maintaining substance-free life by helping teens engage in new social relationships with others who are non-users.
  • Support groups and 12-step programs: These groups, alcoholics anonymous and narcotics anonymous, help reduce the risk of relapse and help maintain a substance-free life.

Teens who have more severe inhalant abuse may best be treated in a residential treatment program.

Can a person overdose on inhalants?

Yes. Some products, especially solvents and aerosol sprays, have high concentrations of harmful chemicals.

Sniffing these products can lead to seizures, coma and sudden cardiac death (heart stops beating) – even for first-time users.

Breathing in inhalants from a paper or plastic bag placed over the head can cause death from suffocation. Replacement of oxygen in the lungs with toxic fumes from inhalants can cause death by asphyxiation.

How is an inhalant overdose treated?

Emergency treatment of an inhalant overdose involves treating the life-threatening event that occurs as the result of the overdose – such as stopping the seizure or restarting the heart. There are no specific treatments available to reverse the effects of inhalant intoxication.

Studies have shown that teaching adolescents life skills training in school has helped reduce inhalant use. Life skills training focuses on increasing self-esteem and communication, improving personal relationships, and managing anxiety and pressure. Other school-based programs that target adolescent substance use have produced positive results.

Inhalants damage nerve fibers, which are the communication network of cells in the brain and body that keep the brain and body working properly. Inhalants also damage brain cells by limiting the amount of oxygen that reaches it. The effects of this damage depend on the area of the brain damaged, but could include:

  • Memory problems, personality changes, learning disabilities, hallucinations.
  • Speaking problems.
  • Complex problem solving and planning and organization problems.
  • Vision problems.
  • Movement problems (walking problems, muscle spasms and tremors, slow or clumsy movements).

Inhalants depress the central nervous system, producing short-term side effects similar to that seen with drinking alcohol. The short-term side effects of inhalants abuse include:

  • Slurred speech.
  • Lightheadedness.
  • Intense feelings of happiness.
  • Agitation.
  • Headaches
  • Drowsiness.
  • Dizziness.
  • Excitability.
  • Loss of coordination.
  • Upset stomach.
  • Blurred or double vision.
  • Mucous membrane irritation.
  • Sudden death (irregular and rapid heartbeat that leads to sudden heart failure).

Long term side effects include:

  • Lung damage.
  • Liver and kidney damage.
  • Hearing loss
  • Weakened immune system.
  • Seizures.
  • Limb spasms.
  • Brain damage.
  • Heart rhythm changes.
  • Coma.
  • Death.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 10/11/2019.



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