Inhalants: what are the effects?

Inhalants: what are the effects?

Inhalants: what are the effects?

The effects of any drug (including inhalants) vary from person to person. How inhalants affect a person depends on many things including their size, weight and health, also whether the person is used to taking it and whether other drugs are taken. The effects of any drug also depend on the amount taken.

There is no safe level of drug use. Use of any drug always carries some risk—even medications can produce unwanted side effects. It is important to be careful when taking any type of drug.

Immediate effects

The effects of inhalants may start to be felt immediately and can last for 45 minutes.

Low to moderate doses

Some of the effects that may be experienced after taking inhalants include:

  • initial “rush” or “high”
  • feeling of wellbeing
  • lowered inhibitions
  • excited, euphoric, giggling and laughing
  • agitated, uneasy and aggressive
  • hallucinations and delusions
  • confusion and disorientation
  • impaired judgement
  • drowsiness
  • headaches
  • drowsiness
  • bloodshot, glazed eyes
  • blurred vision
  • nosebleeds
  • runny nose
  • sneezing
  • unpleasant breath
  • slurred speech
  • irregular heart beat
  • chest pain
  • nausea and vomiting
  • diarrhoea
  • slurred speech
  • impaired coordination and muscle control (ataxia).

Higher doses

A higher dose of inhalants can increase the chances of:

  • feeling disorientated
  • decreased coordination
  • visual distortions
  • nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea
  • headaches
  • bloodshot eyes
  • increased confidence which can lead to risky behaviour
  • hallucinations
  • blackout, convulsions, coma.

Sudden sniffing death

“Sudden sniffing death” has followed the use of aerosol sprays, cleaning and correction fluids, and model aeroplane cement. It is believed that chemicals in these products can cause heart failure, particularly if the user is stressed or does heavy exercise after inhaling. This is very rare.

Coming down

As the effects of inhalants begin to wear off, a person may experience effects such as headache, nausea and dizziness. These effects can last for a number of days.

Long-term effects

People who use inhalants long-term may experience the following effects:

  • pimples around the mouth and lips
  • pale appearance
  • tremors
  • weight loss
  • tiredness
  • excessive thirst
  • loss of sense of smell and hearing
  • problems with blood production, which may result in problems such as anaemia, irregular heartbeat and damage to the heart muscle
  • forgetfulness and memory impairment
  • reduced attention and ability to think clearly and logically
  • liver and kidney damage
  • irritability, hostility, feeling depressed or feeling persecuted
  • chest pain or angina
  • indigestion
  • stomach ulcers.

Most long-term effects are not permanent and can be reversed if use is stopped. However, some inhalants such as cleaning products, correction fluid, aerosol sprays and petrol can cause permanent damage, especially if people use them heavily for a long period.

Some of the chemicals in inhalants may build up in the body. They can irritate the stomach and the intestines, and can cause damage to the brain, nervous system, kidneys and liver.

Using inhalants with other drugs

The chances of an overdose are increased if inhalants are taken with other depressant drugs such as alcohol, benzodiazepines or opiates. Using inhalants with other depressants can affect breathing rate and the heart and blood vessels. Mixing drugs can also increase the risk of passing out and suffocating or choking on vomit.

Pregnancy and breastfeeding

Read about the effects of drugs on pregnancy and breastfeeding.


Read about the effects of drugs on driving.

For more information, please click on the Australian Drug Foundation’s DrugInfo Clearinghouse web site link below.

Last Reviewed: 24/02/2012

Reproduced with kind permission from the Australian Drug Foundation.


Australian Drug Foundation. Inhalant facts. Last updated 24 February 2012. (accessed Jan 2013).


20146 Inhalants

Inhalants: what are the effects?

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

Where can I find more information?


Inhalant Effects

Inhalants: what are the effects?

People abuse inhalants for a cheap and easy way to get high. The legality of the substances may lead some people to believe they’re less risky than other substances of abuse. But inhalants can cause serious health problems.

Risks of specific chemicals in inhalants include:

All inhalants can shock the body and make the heart stop beating. Inhalant abuse is also associated with other long-term risks.

Short-Term Effects of Inhalants

Ways to use inhalants include sniffing, snorting, bagging orhuffing. Within seconds of using an inhalant, people feel excitement. They may be unable to stop smiling or laughing. The substances also disrupt thinking. Some people experience hallucinations and delusions.

They also feel side effects similar to those of alcohol, such as slurred speech, coordination loss and dizziness.

  • Lightheadedness
  • Trouble breathing
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Confusion
  • Drowsiness
  • Muscle weakness
  • Slowed reflexes
  • Stupor
  • Headache

Nitrites, a type of inhalant used primarily to enhance sexual pleasure, cause unique side effects. These drugs can make people feel hot and flushed.

Some research suggests nitrites weaken the immune system. People who use nitrites are also more ly to practice unsafe sex and contract infectious diseases such as HIV, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Inhalant Overdose

A single use of an inhalant can cause death. The drugs deprive the body of oxygen, forcing the heart to beat faster. This leads to rapid and irregular heartbeat, increasing the risk of heart failure. Abrupt heart failure caused by inhalant use is referredto assudden sniffing death syndrome.

  • Asphyxiation from prolonged oxygen deprivation
  • Choking on vomit
  • Coma caused by brain damage
  • Convulsions and seizures caused by brain damage
  • Suffocation from plastic bags or other objects used during inhalation

Signs of an inhalant overdose include chest pain, dysphoria, labored breathing or lack of response to stimuli. Individuals experiencing an inhalant overdose should call 911 immediately.

People who abuse inhalants are also more ly to die from accidental injuries. The substances cannot be consumed safely.

Long-Term Effects of Inhalants

In addition to serious short-term risks, inhalants can cause long-term health problems. An inhalant overdose can cause permanent damage to the brain, heart and other organs. Repeated use also increases the risk of chronic health problems.

The drugs can cause addiction, a brain disease characterized by compulsive drug-seeking behavior despite health and social consequences. People addicted to inhalants don’t recognize the damage they’re doing when they use thesubstances.

  • Hearing loss
  • Reduced oxygen flow in the blood
  • Increased risk of leukemia
  • Personality changes
  • Memory problems
  • Kidney stones and kidney damage
  • Liver damage
  • Weakened lungs
  • Muscle deterioration
  • Recurring numbness or tingling
  • Severe rashes

Regular inhalant use destroys nerves in the brain. This causes problems with cognition, movement, vision and hearing. Severe damage can lead to dementia. The substances also cause irreversible damage to other organs, according to the Center for Substance Abuse Research.

Inhalants cause short-term pleasurable effects followed by intense discomfort. A single use of an inhalant can cause a life-threatening overdose, and repeated use can cause addiction and long-term health problems that may be permanent.

Medical Disclaimer: 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.


Inhalant Addiction and Abuse: Huffing Household Products

Inhalants: what are the effects?

Even though national surveys indicate that 21.7 million Americans have used inhalants at least once in their lives, inhalant abuse is less common than other drugs, and most cases occur in more isolated regions. However, inhalants do have addictive qualities. The danger of an inhalant addiction shouldn’t be overlooked just because it is less common than others.

People who use inhalants on a regular basis over a long period of time can develop a physical and psychological dependence on the substance.

Inhalant use is most prevalent among teenagers. Studies suggest that between 13.1% and 16.1% of 8 graders use inhalants, which is approximately the same percentage that use marijuana.

 People who are unable to control their inhalant use despite knowing the negative consequences and health effects are generally considered to have an addiction. Even those with an overwhelming desire to stop abusing inhalants may be unable to do so.

 The ready availability of inhalants at home and in stores may make it difficult for someone with a severe addiction to quit on their own.

Understanding Inhalants

Inhalants are volatile, often flammable substances that vaporize at room temperature. Inhalants produce short-lived, mind-altering effects that can be similar to alcohol’s effects.

 Inhalants encompass a wide variety of chemicals and anesthetics categorized together their method of administration: inhalation.

These substances are often referred to as whippets, laughing gas, huff or hippie crack.

Substances Considered Inhalants

Inhalant abuse includes the misuse of household solvents, gases and anesthetics. Household inhalants can be anything from cleaning products to gasoline.

Anesthetics are gases used to medically reduce sensitivity to pain. Nitrous oxide and chloroform are some well-known anesthetics. Nitrous oxide is best known as “laughing gas” and is commonly used by dentists. This gas is also used in cans of whipped cream, which is where most abusers get it.

Amyl nitrite is also a popular inhalant that has been used to increase blood flow in people with heart disease. Nitrites are oftentimes subjugated to their own class of inhalants because they act primarily as a muscle relaxant, different from the effects of other inhalants.


  • Paint thinners
  • Dry-cleaning fluids
  • Gasoline
  • Lighter fluid
  • Correction fluids
  • Felt-tip marker fluid
  • Electronic contact cleaners
  • Glue
  • Nail polish
  • Nail polish remover


  • Spray paint
  • Hair spray
  • Deodorant spray
  • Aerosol computer cleaning products
  • Vegetable oil sprays


  • Butane lighters
  • Propane tanks
  • Whipped cream dispenses (commonly referred to as whippets)
  • Ether
  • Chloroform
  • Nitrous oxide (“laughing gas”)
  • Freon


  • Video head cleaner
  • Room odorizer
  • Leather cleaner
  • Liquid aroma

Don’t waste another second. Enter your number to receive a call
from a compassionate treatment expert.

Contact a treatment expert at (855) 826-4464

Inhalant Effects and Abuse

Inhalants can be abused using several different methods, with the most common being “huffing.” Huffing is soaking a rag with a liquid inhalant, holding the rag up to one’s mouth and/or nose, and then inhaling the vapors. Some people inhale the substance directly from its container through their mouth or nose.

People may also inhale the substance a plastic or paper bag or inhale gas from balloons. Some people have reportedly heated these substances before inhaling them to intensify the effects.

Inhalant intoxication has been compared to alcohol intoxication due to their similar effects, such as impaired judgment or motor function. Un alcohol, inhalants can cause a temporary hallucinatory state. Additionally, the effects of inhalants only last for a few minutes. The effects of inhalants include:

  • Excitability
  • Euphoria
  • Hallucinations
  • Loss of self-control
  • Lightheadedness
  • Dizziness
  • Limited reflexes
  • Loss of coordination
  • Blacking out
  • Slurred or distorted speech

Teens are the largest group of individuals abusing inhalants. The average age among first-time users in 2012 was about 17 years of age.

Any use of inhalants is considered abuse in part because of the serious damage these substances can inflict on the body.

Inhalants act as a central nervous system depressant, and higher doses or deep breathing of these solvents can result in a fatal overdose. This is usually preceded by the user losing touch of reality and experiencing nausea, vomiting and unconsciousness.

A fatal overdose is generally the result of heart failure, asphyxiation or the drug causing the user to stop breathing on their own.

Additional long-term effects of inhalant use include:

  • Liver and kidney damage
  • Hearing loss
  • Bone marrow damage
  • Loss of coordination and limb spasms
  • Nerve damage
  • Delayed behavioral development
  • Brain damage

Get confidential help 24/7. Call now for:

  • Access to top treatment centers
  • Caring, supportive guidance
  • Financial assistance options

(855) 826-4464

Inhalant Abuse Statistics


hospital visits

There were over 10,000 visits to the emergency room for inhalant abuse in 2011.


percent of teenagers

Over 60% of first-time users are teenagers and abuse is more common among younger teens.


cases of addiction

Inhalant dependence is rare—about 140,000 dependencies in 2011. For comparison, there were over 100 times as many alcohol dependencies in the same year.

Treating an Inhalant Addiction

Inhalant addiction is a very serious problem that can cause permanent brain damage in a short period of time. Most individuals who suffer from inhalant addiction need for professional treatment. There are both inpatient and outpatient treatment options available for people suffering with an addiction to inhalants.

Inhalants are one of the most detrimental substances of abuse to a person’s health. If you or someone you know has an inhalant addiction, get help finding treatment.


The Effects of Inhalant Use

Inhalants: what are the effects?

There are a huge number of inhalants available for abuse, and they're fairly easy to obtain. It's unsurprising that teens in particular are susceptible to inhalant abuse, simply because these compounds can be obtained from any supermarket or store. So what are inhalants?

  • Inhalants are compounds that can be breathed in without smoking or using heat to vaporize them.
  • They tend to be gases at room temperature or, if liquid or solid, emit an inhalable vapor.

This makes them different from nicotine or marijuana, which in most cases have to be combusted prior to use.

As you may expect, the concept of inhalants covers a variety of substances, but these drugs typically are classified as one of four types:

  • Volatile solvents or fuels.
  • Medical gases (e.g. nitrous oxide)
  • Aerosols
  • Alkyl nitrites

Solvents cover a wide range of compounds from nail varnish remover (acetone or ethyl acetate) to methyl acetate in glue. They're also present in a wide range of cleaning compounds. Aerosols are found in pressurized cans; they used to be CFCs, but now they're the more environmentally friendly butane or propane.

Medical gases tend to be ethers and nitrous oxides, but nitrous oxide is also found in whipped cream as a propellant. These three all have effects on the central nervous system.

It's unsurprising that teens in particular are susceptible to inhalant abuse, simply because these compounds can be obtained from any supermarket or store.

Alkyl nitrites are slightly different. They're often sold as air fresheners in clubs, and they come in little vials that have to be popped, hence the term “poppers.” They relax smooth muscle directly when they're in the blood stream, creating a rush and dilating blood vessels. These are more popular with 20-somethings than teens.

Inhalant Effects question 1

Inhalant Effects question 2

Treatment Advisors Are On Call 24/7

Who Answers?

Thinking About Getting Rehab?

Video: What Is Huffing Freon?

The side effects are, again, what you'd expect from depressants:

  • Stumbling.
  • Vomiting.
  • spasmodic reactions.
  • Hallucinations.
  • Appearance of being high.
  • Unresponsiveness to stimuli.
  • Rashes around the mouth where the inhalant has blistered the skin.

Inhalant Effects question 4

Inhalant Dependence

A few, but not all of the inhalants, many abused substances, demonstrate a measurable tolerance to their effects. Additionally, and not surprisingly, some degree of dependency to the inhalants is also seen. Some of the inhalants–tetracholoroethylene or TCE, for example–produces severe excitatory withdrawal symptoms if you stop using the drug.

If you've tried to quit but suffer from serious withdrawal symptoms, you ly are suffering from dependence. This means you need to seek help as soon as you realize you cannot manage your life without inhalants.

Inhalant Effects question 6

Inhalant Withdrawal Treatment

Non-medicated withdrawal can, in some cases, lead to an unpleasant withdrawal syndrome.

Because of the severe health consequences that may accumulate over the course of prolonged inhalant abuse, and because of the risk of excitatory withdrawal effects, a medically supervised withdrawalperiod can not only make the process much more comfortable, but safer. Medical supervision can help monitor the effects that inhalant withdrawal can have on you, and mitigate the unpleasant withdrawal effects.

Typically, inhalant addiction treatment is made up of three main stages:

  1. The first stage, detox, is the process of getting you off inhalants in a safe manner. Usually, you'll be withdrawn from the inhalants immediately. You'll ly notice symptoms of withdrawal within 8 to 24 hours, depending on how accustomed your body is to inhalants. You may be prescribed a mild sedative to make the process easier, although some centers insist on a natural withdrawal process.
  2. Counseling is the next stage of care. You'll ly be asked about various aspects of your life, be encouraged to learn facts about inhalant abuse, and discover how inhalant abuse has affected your life. This process is about understanding why you took drugs and teaching you methods of avoiding inhalant abuse in the future.
  3. The final stage of treatment is keeping clean as you go about your day-to-day business. In some cases. Referral to a sober living home is an option to help you adjust to life outside the clinic. In other cases, you'll be encouraged to attend a 12-step program or peer support group to help you stay clean.

To learn more about treatment, call 1-888-744-0069Who Answers? today. Our caring treatment support specialists can advise you of programs that can help you take your life back from addiction.


About inhalants

Inhalants: what are the effects?

The effects of inhalants usually last only a few minutes, unless users inhale repeatedly. At first, inhalants have a stimulating effect.

Then, if the users keep inhaling, they may feel dazed, dizzy and have trouble walking. Sometimes users get aggressive or think that they see things that are not there.

Stronger chemicals or repeated inhaling can cause people to pass out. A user can also die suddenly from using inhalants.

When someone uses an inhalant, large amounts of toxic chemicals enter the lungs and pass from the bloodstream into the brain. There they damage and kill brain cells.

The amount of fumes a young person inhales greatly exceeds what is considered safe, even in a workplace setting. It may take at least two weeks for the body to get rid of some of the chemicals in inhalants.

Inhalants exit the body mainly through exhaling, which is why an inhalant abuser’s breath often smells chemicals. Inhalants also pass the body through urine.

Short term effects of inhalants are:

  • – headaches, nausea, vomiting;
  • – loss of balance;
  • – dizziness;
  • – slurred and slow speech;
  • – mood changes; and
  • – hallucinations.

Over time inhalants can cause more serious damage, such as:

  • – loss of concentration;
  • – short term memory loss;
  • – hearing loss;
  • – muscle spasms;
  • – permanent brain damage; and
  • – death.

No one can predict how much of an inhalant will kill. A young person can use a certain amount one time and seem fine, but his or her next use could be fatal.

The Texas Comission on Drugs and Alcohol Abuse reports the following ways that inhalant can kill.

  • Asphyxia – Solvent gases can cause a person to stop breathing from a lack of oxygen.
  • Choking – Users can choke on their own vomit.
  • Suffocation – This is more common among users who inhale from plastic bags.
  • Injuries – Inhalants can cause people to become careless or aggressive. This often leads to behaviours that can injure or kill, such as operating a motor vehicle dangerously or jumping from great heights. Teens can also get burned or even be killed if someone lights a cigarette while they are ‘huffing’ butane, gasoline or some other flammable substance.
  • Suicides – Coming down from an inhalant high causes some people to feel depressed, which may lead them to take their own lives.
  • Cardiac arrest –Chemicals from inhalants can make the heart beat very fast and irregularly, then suddenly stop beating. This is called cardiac arrest. One reason why this may happen is that inhalants somehow make the heart extrasensitive to adrenaline. (Adrenaline is a hormone that the body produces, usually in response to fear, excitement or surprise.)A sudden rush of adrenaline combined with inhalants can make the heart stop instantly. This ‘sudden sniffing death’ is responsible for more than half of all deaths due to inhalant abuse.

Another very real danger of inhalants is that they often lead young people to try other drugs whose effects are even more intense and last longer.

Excerpts reprinted with permission from Inhalant Abuse: Your Child and Drugs, Guidelines for Parents (Elk Grove Village: American Academy of Pediatrics, 1996).

For more information on inhalant abuse contact:

This information should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your physician. There may be variations in treatment that your physician may recommend individual facts and circumstances.

May be reproduced without permission for noncommercial education use and shared with patients and their families. Also available at

Canadian Paediatric Society, 2204 Walkley Road, Suite 100, Ottawa, Ontario K1G 4G8, telephone 613-526-9397, fax 613-526-3332, Web site

Articles from Paediatrics & Child Health are provided here courtesy of Oxford University Press


Inhalants: Background, Pathophysiology, Epidemiology

Inhalants: what are the effects?

United States

Inhalant abuse is common among adolescents. According to the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 546,000 people aged 12 years or older were current users of inhalants. Use was most common in those ages 12 to 17 years.

An estimated 149,000 adolescents were active inhalant users, while 316,000 were users aged 25 years or older, though the percentage of this group that absued inhalants was much lower than the adolescents. [39] Additionally, there were more than 10,000 ED visits related to inhalant abuse in the United States in 2011.

[40] The most recent report by Monitoring the Future Study (MTF), a survey funded by the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) that monitors drug abuse in adolescents from grades 8 through 12, reports 5.7% of 12th graders had ever used inhalants and that current inhalant abuse remains highest among 8th graders.

Inhalant abuse has decreased over the last two decades. Prevalence of 30-day use was 6.1%, 4.2% and 2.0% in 1995, 2005, and 2015, respectively. [36]

Inhalant abuse is less common (though not rare) in adults. Those especially at risk are doctors, nurses, factory workers, dentists, shoemakers, hair stylists, painters, and dry-cleaning workers; all with ready access to chemicals or anesthetics.

Besides the chemical high offered by these drugs, some adults seek an additional aphrodisiac effect reported to occur with some of these chemicals. Nitrite inhalant use, for example, is prevalent amongst homosexual males.

In one survey, 69% of homosexual males sampled had experience with nitrite inhalants.

These drugs have no social or geographic boundaries, but children abusing inhalants tend to be of lower socioeconomic class, poor performers in school with high rates of absenteeism, and from difficult home situations.


Across the globe, inhalant abuse is rampant among children in both industrial nations and developing countries. Countries with particularly high abuse rates include Great Britain, Singapore, and Brazil.

Inhalant abuse is associated with significant morbidity and mortality. The debilitating and potentially lethal effects of inhalants can occur even with the first use. Although inhalant deaths are ly underreported in the United States, the 2005 report of the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition (NIPC) reports 100–125 deaths annually as a result of inhalant abuse.

[2] Another study by Alper et al found that toluene was associated with an increased QT interval in abusers with a history of unexplained syncope. [3] Additional medical conditions associated with inhalant abuse include acute, severe acute cardiomyopathy and renal failure (toluene), [4]  severe angioedema (dusters), [6] and acute or chronic myocardial ischemia (butane).


Asphyxiation can result from the displacement of oxygen in the lungs by prolonged or repeated inhalations.

Suffocation can occur if a plastic bag is placed over the head when inhaling the fumes and the user becomes unconscious.

Death can also occur because of complications of the intoxication such as choking on aspirated gastric contents, fire-related injuries from inhalant combustion, or fatal injuries suffered as a result of high-risk behaviors.

A common cause of mortality in inhalant abusers is sudden sniffing death syndrome (SSDS). Although the exact mechanism is unknown, the inhalant is believed to sensitize the myocardium to circulating catecholamines.

This causes an exaggerated response to epinephrine released during a sudden alarm or increased physical activity that leads to a fatal arrhythmia.

Death usually occurs while the user is running, attempting to flee, experiencing a particularly frightful hallucination, or during sexual activity.

The co-ingestion of a sympathomimetic agent, such as cocaine or even therapeutic methylphenidate (Ritalin), may increase the risk of the fatal arrhythmia. Sudden sniffing death is particularly associated with the abuse of toluene, butyl nitrate, butane, propane, and chemicals in aerosols.

Inhalant abuse rates are higher in Whites, although use is also high among Hispanic and Native American children.

In the past, abuse was more prevalent in males, but over the past two decades, abuse has increased in females and the prevalence is now nearly equal in the youth population. Inhalant abuse still tends to be higher in adult males.

The typical abusers of inhalants are aged 10–15 years, although use in children as young as 7 and 8 years has been reported.

The average age of initial use of these chemicals was around 10 years in one study, which preceded the average initiation into cigarettes by 1.5 years and narcotics by almost 4 years. Experimentation typically occurs in late childhood and is short lived.

Chronic abuse is usually seen in older adolescents, although it has also been reported as late as the fifth and sixth decades of life.

Inhalant use leads to an earlier initiation of other drug use, including cigarettes and alcohol, and is associated with a higher lifetime prevalence of substance use disorders.