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Inhalant Addiction

Addiction can take many different forms. With so many different substances available, whether prescription, illicit, or even over-the-counter, dangers for addicts lurks around every corner. Unfortunately, some of these substances are far easier to get ahold of than others. This is particularly dangerous for children and teens struggling with substance abuse disorders. Some seemingly innocuous household substances may become your child’s addiction. 

Known as huffing, sniffing, and bagging, inhalants are among the most accessible drugs of abuse. Unfortunately, they can also be incredibly dangerous. Certain chemicals can cause serious medical complications and even death when they are inhaled into the lungs. What makes these substances so hazardous, and why are kids the most at risk?

What Is Inhalant Abuse?

Inhalant abuse includes a wide variety of chemicals that are introduced into the body through “huffing,” or breathing in chemicals through the nose or mouth. Inhalants are huffed without the use of an external heat source. While marijuana and other illicit drugs can be inhaled, they do not fall under the inhalant category because they require heat to produce gas. Inhalants are either compressed air or volatile substances (which refers to substances that are gaseous at room temperature).

Huffing can also be called spraying (when inhaling compressed substances), sniffing, or bagging based on the practice of placing substances in paper bags and inhaling.

Some examples of inhalants include amyl nitrate (poppers), nitrous oxide, toluene (a solvent used in paint thinners and other standard products), gasoline, propane, benzene, and methyl chloride. These can be found in everyday objects like keyboard duster or even cans of whipped cream.

Because of the prevalence of inhalants in household items, they are often among the first drugs that kids used to experiment with. In fact, teens make up the majority of inhalant users. 

Because inhalants vary widely in their chemical makeups, it’s difficult to know what the effects of huffing will be. Inhalant users can experience anything from a mild headache to euphoria; however, some can lead to incredibly hazardous effects. The ubiquity of volatile solvents also makes it easy for teens to have access to potentially harmful drugs.

What Are the Signs of Inhalant Abuse?

It’s important to recognize the signs of abuse, especially since inhalants are so accessible for teens. Though apart from extreme symptoms and reactions to the chemicals, inhalant abuse can be easy to hide, a vigilant parent may recognize some of the most common signs.  As with any drug use, one of the telltale signs is drug paraphernalia. Unfortunately, the items associated with huffing may be everyday household items that include:

  • Rags
  • Aerosol cans
  • Empty containers of chemical products
  • Paper bags

Since those things are so commonly found around the house, you’d have to look out for their excessive or out of the ordinary appearance. Some items may be out of place, for instance,  a can of cooking spray in your child’s room may specifically stand out. 

The use of inhalants may leave other signs behind. Chemical products can often leave stains when dripped or spilled. Paint drips, grease stains, or other chemical markings can be a tip-off to huffing, particularly if you find those stains on a teen’s face, hands, or clothing with no logical explanation.

If teens have been experimenting with inhalant abuse, they may start to exhibit noticeable symptoms. For instance, inhalants may affect users’ coordination or make them confused and irritable. It may also cause slurred speech.

To prevent or stop inhalant abuse in kids and teens, be sure to discuss the risks with your children. Many kids may not recognize that certain substances can be potentially deadly rather than affording you a high with a few mild side effects. 

Encourage your children to come to you with questions and concerns. If they believe you to be approachable when it comes to their curiosities, they may be more likely to open up to you if they have been thinking about experimenting with inhalants.

Inhalants and the Body

While it’s no secret that inhalant abuse and inhalant addiction is harmful, it’s important to understand just how these substances actually interact with the brain and body. Inhalants can cause severe bodily harm. Since these are chemical substances, the havoc that inhalants wreak internally can be quite severe, especially on still-developing brains.

The way that inhalants work is unique to most other substances. The desired effects hoped to be achieved through inhalant abuse is a sense of euphoria. Since inhalants deprive the body of oxygen, it forces other organs such as the heart to work much harder. The heart will need to beat both irregularly and rapidly in order to keep the body functioning.

Nitrous oxide canisters used for inhalant abuse

Through constant inhalant abuse or inhalant addiction, the body can suffer long-term damage. Some of the affected organs are the heart, kidneys, brain, liver, and bone marrow—just to name a few!

Often, chronic inhalant abusers will also experience muscular issues. Inhalants can cause muscle wasting. Also known as muscle atrophy, this process causes the muscles to quite literally waste away. The muscle will shrink in size and also lack in strength, tone, and dexterity. This can actually lead to a number of other significant health problems. 

The poisonous chemicals contained in inhalants also directly impact the lungs. Since you inhale these chemicals, it can cause internal damage to the lungs, which can affect breathing and even result in death among the most severe cases. Inhalants are also known to suppress the immune system, making it easier to contract an illness and suffer from for longer periods of time.

Overall, inhalant addiction causes severe health implications on top of emotional and mental problems. Using inhalants can cause the death of a large number of brain cells due to the lack of oxygen supplied to your brain. If you or someone you love is currently struggling with inhalant addiction, getting proper help is crucial to prevent long-term damage. Addiction treatment is available and necessary to overcome your addiction to this dangerous category of drug.

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What Is Involved in Inhalant Abuse Treatment?

It’s not very common for inhalants to cause addiction or chemical dependency, but psychological addiction is possible. If your children have been using certain chemicals for a long time, they may experience some mild withdrawal symptoms such as irritability, insomnia, and nausea. In some cases, detox may be the best option for safe withdrawal. 

After detox, many inhalant addiction treatment therapies can be effective for you or your child including cognitive behavioral therapy, family therapy, and group therapy. Although there are a number possible treatment options, the best program will create a personalized combination of treatments based on your specific needs. 

The full continuum of care is important for any form of addiction. Addiction is a chronic, progressive disease which means it doesn’t simply “go-away”, but rather is persistent and will worsen with time. 

The full continuum of care address all facets of addiction by implementing a step-down approach to addiction treatment. By starting off in higher levels of care which will include more intense medical and clinical intervention and gradually dropping to lower levels of care, it addresses addiction in a manner that sets you up for success in long-term recovery.

The following is the break down of the full continuum of care:


As mentioned prior, detox is the first level of the full continuum of care and focuses on medical stabilization. By using different detox medications to address detox side effects associated with drug and alcohol use, it provides a more comfortable and safe withdrawal process.

Detox uses a full medical and clinical staff to help patients through the program. The medical team provides 24-7 surveillance in order to track your progress through detox and response to treatment, while the clinical team provides emotional support and therapeutic services.

A therapist talking to a client about the dangers of inhalant abuse


Inpatient or residential treatment follows detox. At this stage, your medical stabilization will be complete so more focus can be put on the clinical aspect of treatment. You’ll undergo full-time therapy while living at the facility which gets to the root causes of addiction as well as addresses any potential dual-diagnosis issues. 

Intensive Outpatient

Intensive outpatient or IOP is the next step in addiction treatment. Therapy drops to part-time, which only occurs a few times per week. During your IOP program, you’ll be responsible for finding alternative housing and commuting to IOP sessions. You’ll still receive any medication management you may need as well as therapy services, but will begin to acclimate to the community at large by finding and maintaining employment as well as enjoying free time. 


Routine outpatient is the final step in the full continuum of care. Therapy only occurs once per week for an hour, making clinical intervention minimal. By this point, you’ll be stable enough to handle the majority of the responsibility to your recovery and making positive life choices as a sober person. Random drug tests are performed during outpatient to ensure you’re on track in recovery and to help make the final transition from addiction treatment to everyday life.

How Dangerous Is Inhalant Abuse?

Again, because of the wide variety of different chemical inhalants, the effects of inhalant abuse varies widely. However, there are a few common risks that can be applied to many inhalants. No matter the chemical used, inhalant abuse can be potentially deadly when inhaling fumes using a plastic bag. Using this method, you increase your risk of experiencing hypoxia, or a lack of oxygen.

When inhaling gas from high-pressure canisters, releasing it can cause it to cool, freezing your throat quickly. This is especially common when inhaling nitrous oxide. Fatal instances of inhalants are typically caused by pneumonia, cardiac failure, and aspiration of vomit while unconscious.

Inhalation of solvents has also shown to cause brain damage that leads to Parkinsonism, symptoms of tremors and rigidity also found in Parkinson’s disease.

You may experience other effects when using specific inhalants. For instance, people who inhale leaded gasoline can experience lead poisoning, toluene can damage the myelin in your brain, and benzene can cause cancer and bone marrow depression. Butane can also cause sudden sniffing death syndrome, which is brought on by asphyxiation and cardiac arrest.

Inhalant abuse mostly affects kids 12 and older, and kids who live on the streets are particularly vulnerable. Inhalants are risky and offer limited euphoric effects compared to mainstream illicit drugs, so they are often used out of desperation or because they are so accessible. Here are some other fast facts about inhalant abuse:

Inhalant Abuse Statistics

  • In 2010, there were 793,000 people 12-years-old and older who used inhalants
  • 68% of inhalant users were under the age of 18
  • In 2016, over 7% of eighth graders said they had tried inhalants at least once

Today, nine percent of kids over 12 have tried inhalants during their lifetime. This is often their first experience with recreational drug use, but the risks are high. Through education and communication between parents and kids, those numbers can decline in future years.


Inhalant abuse: Is your child at risk? (2018, January 13). from

Short- & Long-Term Inhalants Effects on the Brain – Drug-Free World. (n.d.). from

Uitti, R. J., Snow, B. J., Shinotoh, H., Vingerhoets, F. J., Hayward, M., Hashimoto, S., . . . Calne, D. B. (2004, October 08). Parkinsonism induced by solvent abuse. from

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (n.d.). What is the scope of inhalant abuse? from

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