What is an inhalant?
An inhalant can be a common household, industrial or medical product that produces vapours, which some people choose to inhale to make themselves feel intoxicated or high. There are hundreds of different products that can be used as an inhalant, but some common inhalants include aerosol sprays, paint, paint-thinner, felt-tipped pens, correction fluids, gas from lighters or barbeques, cleaning fluid, glue, petrol and nitrous oxide.
The high that an inhalant produces normally lasts for a few seconds to a few minutes, but people often try to make it last by continuing to inhale the substance. Since inhalants are often common and easy to obtain products, they may be seen as relatively safe or low-risk. Let’s look at how inhalants affect the body, some of the associated risks and who is most likely to use inhalants.
How do inhalants affect the body? What are the risks?
Inhalants, like most drugs, affect everyone differently based on a variety of factors. All inhalants are absorbed through the lungs and then travel quickly into the bloodstream and to the brain. Depending on the substance, it will either then act as a depressant on the central nervous system (CNS), slowing the activity of the CNS or, if the inhalant is a nitrite, it will expand blood vessels which drops blood pressure and accelerates the heart rate which causes a rush sensation. Some of the other factors that determine how someone can be affected by inhalants are:
- a person’s size
- weight and health
- if the person is taking any medications
- the amount of physical activity done before inhaling a substance
- the strength of the drug
- the amount of fresh air breathed in while inhaling
- whether other drugs were taken around the same time
- if the person is used to inhaling that particular substance
Inhalants will often make a person feel high, intoxicated or disoriented. Some other immediate or short-term effects include:
- increased heart rate
- dizziness or confusion
- dulling of pain and reduction of anxiety
- impaired judgement
- slurred speech
- loss of coordination and balance
- irritation to eyes
- nose and throat
Nitrites cause a different set of effects such as:
- increased heart rate
- hot flushes
- feelings of warmth and excitement
- blackouts and impaired judgement which can cause someone to partake in risky behaviour
Some of the long-term effects (if inhalants are used long term) can include:
- nose bleeds
- sores around the mouth and nose
- problems breathing
- brain damage
- neurological problems such as tremors, abnormal eye movements, hearing loss, sight loss and damage to parts of the body such as the immune system, bones, nerves, kidneys, liver, heart and lungs
People who use inhalants more regularly find that they experience a lot more negative effects compared to new users or people who don’t use inhalants very often.1
There is no safe level of inhalant use. Because different inhalants are made of a variety of chemicals, it is difficult to be sure about the exact effects and harms of each inhalant. There are some inhalants, though, that are linked to particular risks. One of those being: butane products, which seem to be particularly risky for ‘sudden sniffing death’. Toulene, a substance found in glues and other products, has been strongly linked to brain damage. Hearing loss has been linked to the use of spray paints, glues, dewaxers, dry-cleaning chemicals and correction fluids. Correction fluids and dry-cleaning chemicals also carry the risk for liver and kidney damage.
Since all inhalants result in hypoxia (lowered oxygen levels) there is always the risk of damage to organs in the body including the brain. Inhalants can also destroy myelin, a fatty tissue that surrounds nerve fibres in the brain. As myelin aids in carrying messages around the brain and to the body, damage from inhalants can lead to spasms, tremors and difficulty moving.
Although rare, inhalants also do carry the risk of death. ‘Sudden sniffing death’ can occur when chemicals from the inhalants cause irregular or fast heartbeat which can lead to heart failure, even if that person is healthy and has had no previous heart-related conditions. Asphyxiation or suffocation can occur, as well as seizures, coma and fatal burns.
Who is most likely to be using inhalants? Should we be concerned?
Among the general Australian population, inhalant use is low. According to the National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDSHS) 2019, only 1.7% of the Australian population has used an inhalant in the past 12 months. Among young people (aged 12-17), inhalant use is slightly higher. According to the Australian Secondary School Students Alcohol and Drug (ASSAD) survey 2017, inhalant use tended to be highest among young students (aged 12-15) than older students (aged 16-17) but, only 18% of total students (aged 12-17) had ever tried an inhalant. The majority of those students who had tried an inhalant, only tried it once or twice and never again.
Should we be concerned by the number of young people using inhalants? Using any kind of drug comes with risks and concerns, but, when it comes to inhalants, the number of young people who have ever tried an inhalant in the past year is relatively low (13%), and, the number of young people using them more than once or twice is even lower (2.5%). When inhalants are compared with alcohol consumption among young people (46% of young people consumed alcohol in the past year compared to 13% of students trying inhalants in the past year) we can see that, although inhalant usage is higher than some other drugs, alcohol is still the main concern among young people in Australia. We also know that alcohol consumption causes more harm in Australia than all other drugs combined.
How can I talk to my young person about inhalants?
Talking about drugs with your young person may seem like a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be.
Here are a few helpful tips you can use:
Firstly, remember that having the conversation around alcohol and other drugs is just that: a conversation. Lecturing your young person and telling them what to do is rarely an effective way to discuss alcohol and other drugs. Instead, ask them what they think about certain drugs, or talk about what they might do in a particular situation. Having a calm, non-judgemental and respectful conversation will often produce the best results so you can help teach and support your young person.
Secondly, make sure to have clear boundaries and consequences. While it’s helpful to keep discussions about alcohol and other drugs open and conversational, it’s also extremely helpful for young people to know exactly what is and isn’t acceptable, and to know what the consequences are if those boundaries aren’t respected.
Lastly, find tangible ways to support your young person. You can give them practical strategies to help them out of tricky situations they may experience such as deciding on a codeword or phrase they can use in a text message or phone call that signals to you they need to be picked up straight away. You can also discuss ways they can stand firm in their decisions they’ve made around alcohol and other drugs, especially when they may be in a situation where they’re feeling peer pressure.
Overall, when parents and their young people are equipped with the facts around alcohol and other drugs, parents are better equipped to support and guide their young person, and young people are better equipped to make great choices when it comes to alcohol and other drugs.
1 Garland, E.L. and Howard, M.O., 2010. Phenomenology of adolescent inhalant intoxication. Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology. 18(6): p. 498-509