What are inhalants?
Inhalants are breathable chemicals that produce psychoactive (mind-altering) vapors. People do not usually think of inhalants as drugs because most of them were never meant to be used that way. They include solvents, aerosols, some anesthetics, and other chemicals. Examples are model airplane glue, nail polish remover, lighter and cleaning fluids, and gasoline. Aerosols that are used as inhalants include paints, cookware coating agents, hair sprays, and other spray products. Anesthetics include halothane and nitrous oxide (laughing gas). Amyl nitrite and butyl nitrite are inhalants that also are abused.

What is amyl nitrite?
Amyl nitrite is a clear, yellowish liquid that is sold in a cloth-covered, sealed bulb. When the bulb is broken, it makes a snapping sound; thus they are nicknamed "snappers" or "poppers." Amyl nitrite is used for heart patients and for diagnostic purposes because it dilates the blood vessels and makes the heart beat faster. Reports of amyl nitrite abuse occurred before 1979, when it was available without a prescription. When it became available by prescription only, many users abused butyl nitrite instead.

What is butyl nitrite?
Butyl nitrite is packaged in small bottles and sold under a variety of names, such as "locker room" and "rush." It produces a "high" that lasts from a few seconds to several minutes. The immediate effects include decreased blood pressure, followed by an increased heart rate, flushed face and neck, dizziness, and headache.

Who abuses inhalants?
Young people, especially between the ages of 7 and 17, are more likely to abuse inhalants, in part because they are readily available and inexpensive. Sometimes children unintentionally misuse inhalant products that are often found around the house. Parents should see that these substances, like medicines, are kept away from young children.

How do inhalants work?
Although different in makeup, nearly all of the abused inhalants produce effects similar to anesthetics, which act to slow down the body's functions. At low doses, users may feel slightly stimulated; at higher amounts, they may feel less inhibited, less in control; at high doses, a user can lose consciousness.

What are the immediate negative effects of inhalants?
Initial effects include nausea, sneezing, coughing, nosebleeds, feeling and looking tired, bad breath, lack of coordination, and a loss of appetite. Solvents and aerosols also decrease the heart and breathing rate and affect judgment.

The strength of these effects depends on the experience and personality of the user, how much is taken, the specific substance inhaled, and the user's surroundings. The "high" from inhalants tends to be short or can last several hours if used repeatedly.

What are the most serious short-term effects of inhalants?
Deep breathing of the vapors, or using a lot over a short period of time may result in losing touch with one's surroundings, a loss of self-control, violent behavior, unconsciousness, or death. Using inhalants can cause nausea and vomiting. If a person is unconscious when vomiting occurs, death can result from aspiration.

Sniffing highly concentrated amounts of solvents or aerosol sprays can produce heart failure and instant death. Sniffing can cause death the first time or any time. High concentrations of inhalants cause death from suffocation by displacing the oxygen in the lungs. Inhalants also can cause death by depressing the central nervous system so much that breathing slows down until it stops.

Death from inhalants is usually caused by a very high concentration of inhalant fumes. Deliberately inhaling from a paper bag greatly increases the chance of suffocation. Even when using aerosol or volatile (vaporous) products for their legitimate purposes, i.e, painting, cleaning, etc., it is wise to do so in a well-ventilated room or outdoors.

What are the long-term dangers?
Long-term use can cause weight loss, fatigue, electrolyte (salt) imbalance, and muscle fatigue. Repeated sniffing of concentrated vapors over a number of years can cause permanent damage to the nervous system, which means greatly reduced physical and mental capabilities. In addition, long-term sniffing of certain inhalants can damage the liver, kidneys, blood, and bone marrow.

Tolerance, which means the sniffer needs more and more each time to get the same effect, is likely to develop from most inhalants when they are used regularly.

What happens when inhalants are used along with other drugs?
As in all drug use, taking more than one drug at a time multiplies the risks. Using inhalants while taking other drugs that slow down the body's functions, such as tranquilizers, sleeping pills, or alcohol, increases the risk of death from overdose. Loss of consciousness, coma, or death can result.

Source: National Institute on Drug Abuse, 1986

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