Content reviewed by Christian Losch, LCSW, LCADC, CEO of Pinelands

When parents consider teen drug use, they most likely think of drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes or marijuana or misusing stimulant medications. Rarely do parents consider that teens misuse certain products as inhalants, though this is a significant problem in the nation. More than 22 million Americans ages 12 and older have used inhalants at some point in their life, which is nearly nine percent of the U.S. population.

The psychoactive properties of inhalant drugs are not something to underestimate. It is important to understand what inhalants are, why they are dangerous and that treatment is available for those who are struggling with an addiction to this form of drug use.

What are inhalants?

The term “inhalants” refers to the plethora of different substances that people inhale with the intent to get high. Many types of inhalants are found in common household products that are easily bought. These products are safe when used for their intended purpose, however, some contain dangerous chemical substances that produce psychoactive properties when they are inhaled. Examples of inhalants include:

  • Solvents: Examples include paint thinners, gasoline, lighter fluid, felt-tip markers and glue
  • Aerosol sprays: Examples include spray paints, deodorant sprays, hair sprays and vegetable oil sprays
  • Gases: Examples include butane lighters, propane tanks and whipped cream dispensers
  • Nitrites: Examples include room odorizers, leather cleaners and liquid aromas

Inhalants are most popularly used by older adolescents and teenagers, though it is not contained to this population. People who use inhalants do so by breathing in the fumes of the substance by sniffing, snorting or huffing it.

The effects of inhalants on the brain

The chemicals in inhalants affect the central nervous system (CNS) by slowing down brain activity and functioning. The short-term effects of these substances include:

  • Slowed, slurred and distorted speech
  • Lack of coordination
  • Lightheadedness
  • Dizziness
  • Feeling high
  • Potential hallucinations and delusions

Chronic or long-term use of inhalants can lead to severe health consequences, not to mention the increased risk of developing a chemical dependency or addiction. The long-term effects of inhalants can include:

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

It is important to understand that although some damaging effects resulting from inhalant use may be reversible once inhalant use stops, many effects can become irreversible even once use has stopped. No amount of inhalant use is considered safe.

Can a person overdose on inhalants?

Because the effects of inhalants only last a few minutes, people may try to extend the length of their high by continuing to inhale the substance repeatedly or over an extended period. Though the high is short-lived and may seem innocuous, this behavior is dangerous, and the potential consequences are even more dangerous. Repeated exposure to inhalants can lead to a loss of consciousness or even death.

With inhalant use, there is a condition called sudden sniffing death, which can result from the single use of inhalants by an otherwise healthy young person. Researchers believe that this death can result from inhaling certain chemicals in aerosols, as well as butane or propane.

Chronic inhalant use and substance use disorder

Despite addiction not being common for individuals who attempt to get high off inhalants, repeated use of these substances can still lead to addiction. Addiction — or substance use disorder (SUD) — develops when repeated substance use begins to interfere with an individual’s ability to function normally in their daily life. It may cause problems in their interpersonal relationships, finances, health or ability to complete responsibilities, especially if they experience withdrawal symptoms from abstaining for a certain period.

Individuals who struggle with chronic use of inhalants should seek treatment, as withdrawal symptoms may be uncomfortable and consequences can become severe. Treatment will help individuals through a detoxification program to make the withdrawal process more manageable. Withdrawal symptoms from inhalants may include:

  • Nausea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Sweating
  • Sleep problems
  • Mood changes

Recovery from inhalant use

Treatment approaches for inhalant use are very similar to the psychotherapeutic approaches used to treat any other addictive behaviors. First, there must be an individualized psychotherapeutic approach such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) or acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). The patient must also engage in treatment activities, such as psychodrama or experiential therapy. The patient must also have connections to support groups so they can use social support to motivate and enhance their recovery journey.

Following treatment, it is crucial for individuals in recovery to engage in long-term treatment and aftercare. Some facilities offer alumni programs, weekly recovery groups and other opportunities to help individuals working to maintain lifelong sobriety. When a young person is struggling to heal from inhalant use, it is essential that they work to have healthy, mutually-supportive relationships with their peers to prevent relapse in the future.

Pinelands Recovery Center of Medford offers a wide range of treatment programs and services that can help those who are struggling with any form of substance use get sober and find healing. To learn more about our treatment programs and options, give us a call today at (877) 557-5372.