The teenage years are characterized by exploration and boundary testing, which is important for healthy development but can put teens at risk for participating in risky, dangerous activities. Unfortunately, inhalant abuse is a common way for teenagers to push boundaries and engage in risky behavior, often without being aware of the profound dangers associated with abusing inhalants.
There are a number of incredibly dangerous, even lethal consequences from using inhalants. Acute effects are similar to the intoxicating effects of alcohol and include slurred speech, dizziness, stupor, a temporary sense of euphoria, slowed thinking, impaired motor coordination and generalized muscle weakness. Research has conclusively shown that inhalant abuse causes the death of brain cells, reduced brain cell functionality, reduced blood flow in the brain and impairments in muscular strength and coordination.
Among the consequences of inhalant abuse include chemical or thermal burns, withdrawal symptoms, persistent mental illness, and potentially deadly effects as a result of physical abnormalities (often ventricular arrhythmias) or fatal injuries from motor vehicles or other accidents. Inhalant abuse can cause lifelong consequences that can prevent a teenager from reaching their full potential.
What Are Inhalants & Why Are They Used?
Inhalants are volatile chemicals that are inhaled, or “huffed”, in order to experience mind-altering experiences or highs. Although several compounds may be inhaled, the term inhalant is generally specific to volatile solvents (gasoline, glue, paint thinners), aerosols (spray paint, hairspray), gases (nitrous oxide from whipped cream canisters, butane lighters) and nitrites (often called “poppers” and found in deodorizers or leather cleaners).
There are a few reasons why inhalants are popularly abused, all of which stem from the psychoactive properties that they produce. Different chemicals produce different sensations; for example, the solvent toluene (found in some glue, spray paint and nail polish remover) activates the dopamine-mediated “reward system” in the brain, while the gas nitric oxide (found in whipped cream canisters) has a pleasurable sedating effect.
Types of Inhalants
Inhalants come in several forms that can be generally classified into the following five groups:
- Solvents: The most commonly abused solvents include lighter fluid, gasoline, paint thinner, nail polish or nail polish remover, certain types of glue, felt-tip markers, correction fluid, rubber cement, and dry cleaning fluids.
- Aerosol sprays: Commonly abused aerosols come from spray paint, spray vegetable oil, hair spray, spray deodorants, computer cleaners and protective sprays for leather or fabrics.
- Gases: Gases that are commonly inhaled come from butane lighters, refrigerants, propane tanks, aerosol whipped cream canisters (nitrous oxide “whippets”) and medical anesthetics (“laughing gas”).
- Nitrites: Nitrites are commonly referred to as “poppers.” They are often sold as video head cleaner in order to bypass legal restrictions, but the usefulness of nitrites as video head cleaner is questionable. They are also provided in small glass ampules for medical use as remedies for angina or minor heart attacks. Some evidence suggests that inhalation of nitrites may deplete the immune system and promote tumor development.
- Alternative inhalants: There is a surprising array of spices that can get you high, and the “nutmeg high” is a popular and incredibly dangerous pursuit for some teenagers. Many spices including nutmeg, fennel, vanilla, black pepper, ginger, turmeric, and saffron are stimulants and/or sedatives. Nutmeg and the rhizomatic spice galangal have hallucinogenic properties when taken at high doses.
Inhalants Commonly Found in the Home
The unfortunate reality of inhalants is that they are incredibly prevalent. Most American homes have several potential sources of inhalants in the kitchen, the office, the cleaning supply closet or in the garage.
Any of the following products are potential sources of inhalants that are most commonly abused:
- Whipped cream canisters
- Certain spices
- Vegetable oil sprays
- Butane lighter fluid
- Spray deodorant
- Hair spray
- Nail polish or remover
- Felt-tip markers
- Leather or fabric protectors
- PC cleaner or video head cleaner
- Certain glues or rubber cement
- Asthma spray (inhalers)
- Dry cleaning agents
- Spot removers
- Paint and lacquer thinners or removers
- Fire extinguishers
- Correction fluid (“white-out”)
Signs Products are Being Used As Inhalants
There are a number of signs and symptoms that may indicate inhalant abuse in teenagers, including:
- Signs of intoxication, including red eyes, runny nose, slurred speech and incoordination
- Paint or other stains on clothing
- Sores or discoloration around the mouth or nose
- Chemical odors or other unusual odors
- Nausea and/or loss of appetite
- Anxiety, depression, excitation or irritability
- Empty spray paint or solvent containers, especially if they are hidden
- Chemical soaked rags or clothing
- Altered focus or attention
Finding Help for Teen Addiction
Research into the addictive nature of inhalants is surprisingly sparse. However, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, regular inhalant abuse can lead to substance use disorders including addiction. If you notice altered sleep or appetite patterns in your teenager, combined with missing aerosol or other inhalant containers, there is cause for concern.
The first step towards understanding why your teenager is behaving differently is to have a frank, non-judgemental conversation with them. If you are unsure of how to approach your teenager, the National Institute on Drug Abuse has resources that can help.
If you are concerned that your teenager is abusing inhalants, Next Generation Village can help. Our evidence-based rehab programs offer comprehensive care that can maximize your teens short- and long-term success and help you and your teen engage in productive communication. Contact us today to learn how our treatment programs can get your teen on the road to recovery.
Medical Disclaimer: Next Generation Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.