The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) identify Inhalants as chemical vapours or gases that produce a ‘high’ when they are breathed in.
Most substances classified as inhalants have legitimate everyday uses, are widely available as commercial products, and are not meant for human consumption. They are usually cheap, legal, and easy to get, thus having a high potential for abuse/misuse. The use of inhalants is difficult to prevent because these products are found in many homes and workplaces.
The many different kinds of inhalants can be divided into four types:
• Most commonly misused
• Evaporate when exposed to air and dissolve many other substances
• Examples include gasoline, cleaning fluids, paint thinners, correction fluid, felt-tip markers, and hand sanitizers
• Aerosol products containing pressurized liquids or gas
• Examples include hair spray, spray paint, cooking spray, and butane
• Chemicals that have a strong smell and expand in the air
• Examples include nitrous oxide (also known as ‘laughing gas’) found in gas tanks for medical use and whipped cream dispensers, chloroform, halothane, butane lighters, and propane
• Liquids that can be ingested or inhaled
• Different from other inhalants in effect and availability
• Examples include amyl nitrite, butyl nitrite and cyclohexyl nitrite (also known as ‘poppers’)
Most individuals who use solvents and aerosols are in the 10-16 years age range. Many try them 1-2 times or use them only on occasion, but others may use them heavily and continuing using into adulthood. Chronic solvent use is normally seen in individuals in their 20s.
Solvent use is associated with:
• Difficulty at school
• Lack of opportunity
• Problems at home
• High incidence of family substance use
How inhalants, or any drug, affect an individual depends on the age of the person, how sensitive they are to the drug, how much they use, how long and how often they have been using, the method used to take the drug, the environment they are in, whether or not they have a pre-existing medical or psychiatric condition, and if they have used alcohol or taken any other type of drug already.
Inhalants are absorbed through the lungs and travel quickly in the blood to the brain, producing an immediate and brief intoxication. Different types of inhalants produce different effects.
• Inhaled solvents usually produce an alcohol-like effect, but with distortion of shape, size, colour, time and space. They can cause excitement, drowsiness, euphoria, exhilaration, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, blurred vision, sneezing, 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, and can cause headaches, dizziness, nausea, and flushing. They cause the heartbeat to quicken and blood to move quickly to the head, creating a ‘rush’.
Several breaths of a solvent will produce a high within a few minutes of use, which can last up to 45 minutes if no more breaths are taken. Additional breaths are used to sustain effects for several hours.
The effects of nitrous oxide and nitrites are immediate and wear off within a few minutes.
Inhalant use is dangerous in many ways. In addition to being highly flammable, the different types of inhalants have other specific dangers:
Solvents and Aerosols
• Suffocation: Solvents are often sniffed from a plastic bag, held firmly around the nose and mouth. There is a risk of passing out with the bag still in place and suffocating due to lack of oxygen, or choking on vomit while unconscious.
• Recklessness: Reduced inhibition and feelings of power often lead to dangerous and destructive behaviour causing serious harm. There is also a risk of depression, inducing self-destructive or suicidal behaviour.
• 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: Individuals using solvents regularly for a long time can cause damage to their liver, kidneys, lungs, heart, brain, bones and blood.
• Fetal Solvent Syndrome: Using solvents during pregnancy, especially chronic use, can result in premature birth, birth defects or stillbirth.
• Lack of Oxygen: Sniffing pure nitrous oxide starves the body of oxygen. Individuals have died this way.
• Loss of Motor Control: Using nitrous oxide while standing can cause individuals to fall and hurt themselves.
• Frostbite: When released from the cylinder, the gas is extremely cold and can freeze skin, and the pressure in the tank can damage the lungs.
• Nerve Damage: High levels of use, even with adequate oxygen, has been shown to damage nerves, causing 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: Nitrites may impair the immune system that protects against infectious diseases.
The long term effects of using inhalants include:
• Bloodshot eyes
• Sores on the nose and mouth
• Nose bleeds
• Pale skin
• Excessive thirst
• Weight loss
• Trouble concentrating, remembering or thinking clearly
• Lack of coordination
• Damage to the liver, kidneys and other internal organs
• Brain damage affecting thinking, memory and movement control
• Permanent hearing loss
• Damage to bone marrow
Some of the long-term effects of using inhalants may go away when individuals stop using, but other effects may be permanent.
While most inhalant use is experimental and occasional, those who use inhalants regularly can develop a tolerance, requiring more and more of the substance to produce the same effect. Using an inhalant regularly can lead to a craving for the high, making it hard to stop using. Withdrawal symptoms, including nausea, loss of appetite, tremors, anxiety, depression and paranoia, may be experienced when regular use is stopped.
Source: The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health
The signs most commonly related to inhalant use are:
• Breath smelling like chemicals
• Sores around the mouth and/or nose
• Slurred speech
• Acting intoxicated
• Sudden inability to focus or concentrate on anything
Source: Royal Canadian Mounted Police
When you know that someone has used inhalants, it is important that you:
• Remain calm
• Keep the individual who is using calm
• Do not argue with the individual using, as stress can cause the heart to stop for someone who is high on inhalants
• For poison advice, dial 811 to reach the Provincial HealthLine.
• If the individual will not wake up, is not breathing, or is having a seizure, dial 911 immediately. Do not delay. Stay with them until help arrives and advise medical staff as much as you can about the drug used, when it was used, and any medical conditions the individual may have.