Although they differ in makeup, nearly all abused inhalants produce short-term effects similar to anesthetics, which act to slow down the body’s functions. When inhaled via the nose or mouth into the lungs in sufficient concentrations, inhalants can cause intoxicating effects. Intoxication usually lasts only a few minutes. However, sometimes users extend this effect by several hours by breathing inhalants repeatedly. Initially, users may feel slightly stimulated. Successive inhalations make them feel less inhibited and less in control. If use continues, users can lose consciousness.
Initial use of inhalants often starts early. Some young people may use inhalants as a cheap, accessible substitute for alcohol. Research suggests that chronic or long-term inhalant abusers are among the most difficult drug abuse patients to treat. Many suffer from cognitive impairment and other neurological dysfunction and may experience multiple psychological and social problems.
Sniffing highly concentrated amounts of chemicals in solvents or aerosol sprays can directly induce heart failure and death within minutes of a session of prolonged use. This syndrome, known as “sudden sniffing death”, can result from a single session of inhalant use by an otherwise healthy young person. Sudden sniffing death is particularly associated with the abuse of butane, propane, and chemicals in aerosols. High concentrations of inhalants also can cause death from suffocation by displacing oxygen in the lungs and then in the central nervous system so that breathing ceases. Deliberately inhaling from an attached paper or plastic bag or in a closed area greatly increases the chances of suffocation. Even when using aerosols or volatile products for their legitimate purposes (i.e. painting, cleaning), it is wise to do so in a well-ventilated area.
Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome
The following was taken from the Dekalb County Sheriff’s Department web site.
Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome (SSDS) is the most common killer of inhalant abusers. A victim may be trying inhalants for the first time, or may have tried them any number of times in the past. In fact, 22% of inhalant abusers who died of SSDS had no history of previous inhalant abuse.
SSDS occurs when an abuser is surprised or startled while sniffing or huffing. Often, this occurs when a parent or authority figure finds the person inhaling. An especially exciting or frightening hallucination could also trigger SSDS.
When the abuser is surprised or startled, he has a sudden surge of the hormone epinephrine. Epinephrine is also called adrenaline. Epinephrine aids in regulating the functions of the body that are beyond a person’s conscious control, like heart rate. When a person is highly stimulated (by fear or challenge, for example) extra amounts of epinephrine are released into the bloodstream to prepare the body energetic action. Epinephrine increases blood pressure, heart rate, and cardiac output.
The presence of the chemical inhalants in the body makes the heart muscle more sensitive to epinephrine. When the surge of epinephrine reaches the heart, the heart suffers an arrhythmia (irregular heart beat). This massive arrhythmia kills the user in seconds.
Long-Term Irreversible Damage
Chronic abuse of solvents can cause severe, long-term damage to the brain, the liver, and the kidneys. Harmful irreversible effects that may be caused by abuse of specific solvents include:
- Hearing Loss: Toluene (spray paints, glues, dewaxers) and Trichloroethylene (cleaning fluids and correction fluids)
- Peripheral Neuropathies or Limb Spasms: Hexane (glues, gasoline) and Nitrous Oxide (whipping cream, gas cylinders)
- Central Nervous System or Brain Damage: Toluene (spray paints, glue, dewaxers)
- Bone Marrow Damage: Benzene (gasoline)
Other Serious Side Effects
- Liver and Kidney Damage: Toluene contains substances and Chlorinated Hydrocarbons (correction fluids, dry-cleaning fluids)
- Blood Oxygen Depletion: Aliphatic Nitrites (known as poppers, bold, and rush) and Methylene Chloride (varnish removers, paint thinners)
- Abuse of Amyl and Butyl Nitrites has been associated with Kaposi’s Sarcoma (KS), the most common cancer reported among AIDS patients. Early studies of KS showed that many people with KS had used volatile nitrites as a factor contributing to the development of KS in HIV-infected people.