Inhalant Abuse What it Is and Treatment

The term “inhalants” applies to a range of products (most of which are common in households across the United States) that can be abused in order to achieve a state of disorientation or euphoria.

The following are among the more commonly abused inhalants:

  • Model glue
  • Nail polish remover
  • Gasoline
  • Spray paint
  • Cooking spray
  • Correction fluid (such as Liquid Paper and Wite-Out)
  • Cleaning fluids

Chemicals in commonly abused inhalants include butane, propane, fluorocarbons, ethyl chloride, acetone, and nitrous oxide.

Inhalant Abuse

Inhalant abuse usually occurs via “huffing” — that is, inhaling the fumes from the substances. For the inhalant abuser to get maximum effect from the substance being abused, the substances may be poured into a plastic bag or soaked into a rag, which is then placed very near the nose and mouth.

Inhalant abuse leads to intense short-term effects, including the following:

  • Slurred speech
  • Coordination problems
  • Cognitive distortion
  • Disorientation and confusion
  • Dizziness
  • Lightheadedness
  • Nausea

The effects of inhalant abuse are usually felt within seconds of the huffing, and generally dissipate within a matter of minutes. Of course, extended or chronic huffing or inhalant abuse can result in long-term damage such as:

  • Brain damage
  • Liver and kidney damage
  • Memory loss
  • Seizures and spasms
  • Vision and hearing damage

Treatment for Inhalant Abuse

Animal and human research show that most inhalants are extremely toxic:

  • Chronic exposure can lead to widespread and long-lasting damage to the brain and other parts of the nervous system. Nerve damage can be similar to that seen in individuals with neurological diseases such as multiple sclerosis.
  • Chronic exposure can produce significant damage to the heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys.
  • Prolonged abuse can negatively affect a person’s cognition, movement, vision, and hearing.
  • Highly concentrated amounts of certain inhalants can lead to sudden sniffing death – heart failure and death can occur within minutes of repeated inhalations.
    Sudden sniffing death is particularly associated with the abuse of butane, propane, and chemicals in aerosols, and can result from a single session of inhalant abuse by an otherwise healthy person.

Treatment for inhalant abuse depends upon several factors, including the age and gender of the patient, the length and severity of the patient’s drug problems, the type(s) of inhalants being abused, the abuse of or addition to any other substances, and the presence of any co-occurring disorders.

Treatment for young people who have been involved in inhalant abuse may be done on an outpatient, residential, or partial hospitalization basis. Therapeutic boarding schools, therapeutic wilderness programs, and residential drug addiction recovery programs all offer effective treatment options for young people who have been abusing inhalants.

Treatment for inhalant abuse or addiction may include the following therapies and techniques:

  • Individual therapy
  • Group therapy
  • Family therapy
  • 12-Step education
  • Relapse-prevention instruction
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
  • Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)
  • Biofeedback & Neurofeedback
  • Recreation therapy