Overview: Inhalants are a huge group of chemicals
with one thing in common: Each can be inhaled for its intoxicating
effects. Thousands of commercial and industrial products (glues,
fuels, solvents, paints, and propellants) have been used as inhalants,
along with a small group of gases intended for medical and dental
Types/Forms: Solvents, aerosols, nitrites. Volatile
solvents are chemicals made from petroleum and natural gas. (“Volatile”
means they evap-orate when exposed to air; solvents dissolve
other substances.) Aerosols are sprays that contain intoxicating
propellants. The nitrites group includes two gases used in medical/dental
procedures: amyl nitrite and nitrous oxide (“laughing gas”).
Variants of amyl nitrite are also used, including butyl nitrite
and cyclohexyl nitrite.
Actions/Effects: Inhalants usually trigger an alcohol-like
stupor, with euphoria, hallucinations, and delusions. Physical
effects include increased or irregular heartbeat, headache, slowed
breathing, and coma. Nitrous oxide causes numbness and giddiness,
sometimes with a sensation of floating.
Medical Uses: Solvents and aerosols: None. Amyl nitrite:
Treatment for angina pectoris. Nitrous oxide: Dental anesthetic.
Risks/Side Effects: Headache, ringing in the ears, coughing,
vomiting, and pain in the chest, muscles, or joints. Sudden death
can result from a sudden burst of activity (sometimes triggered
by sniffing-related delusions) or from irregular heartbeat. Suffocation
is also a risk for sniffers who pass out with a plastic bag over
the nose and mouth or in an enclosed space with a leaking gas
source. Long-term risks vary, but include brain and nervous system
damage, and toxic effects to the lungs, liver, and kidneys.
Duration: Solvents: 15-45 minutes. Nitrites: 30
seconds-3 minutes. Nitrous oxide: minutes.
Trends: Aerosols are less of a problem today than in the
past, as intoxicating propellant gases have been replaced by
pressurized carbon dioxide and nitrogen. Attempts have also been
made to control the contents of household products to reduce
risk, but solvents will continue to be around, in both the home
and in industry — and inside the lungs and brains of those who
don’t respect their dangers.
Demographics: Use tends to decrease with age. In a
2010 national survey, 8.1 percent of U.S. 8th-graders admitted
using inhalants during the previous year, compared with only
3.6 percent of high school seniors.