What are inhalants

man inhaling spray paint from a paper bag

 

Laughing gas, nangs, poppers, whippets, chroming, huffers, bulbs, glue, sniff

Inhalants are usually household or industrial substances that are breathed in or ‘sniffed’ to give the user an immediate, euphoric ‘high’. Most of these substances are common, easily available household products that can be relatively cheap to obtain.

There are 4 main categories of inhalants: volatile solvents, aerosols, nitrites and gases. Examples of these inhalants include volatile substances such as petrol, glue, paint, cleaning products, nitrous gas and amyl nitrite. The way people use them varies, but usually a concentrated amount of the substance is directly and repeatedly inhaled, either directly from its container or sometimes from a plastic bag.

Most inhalants are classified as downers (depressants), except nitrites which give you a ‘rush’. They are absorbed by the body through the lungs and carried to the brain, where they slow down the messages travelling from your brain to the rest of your body.

Because of the way they are taken, they may cause suffocation. Even a single use of inhalants can be deadly. Breathing in inhalants temporarily replaces the regular oxygen supply in the lungs and replaces it with several toxic chemicals.

How do you know when inhalant USE IS becoming a problem?

Problems may develop with inhalants without many obvious warning signs as they are relatively easy to obtain compared to other substances. Inhalants affect everyone differently based on their health, body type, the type of substance inhaled, how frequently it is consumed and whether it is used with other drugs. The environment in which sniffing takes place can also influence the effects - a lack of fresh air and physical activity pre and post inhaling. Using inhalants in combination with other drugs can lead to accidental overdose or death. The high from inhalants only lasts for a very brief time, so these substances can be abused more easily and secretly. 

 

A dependency on inhalants can sometimes have tell-tale signs, such as:

 

  • A person leaving the room repeatedly for short periods of time for no reason
  • Strange chemical smells on their breath or clothing
  • Stains on clothing e.g. paint
  • Hallucinations or delusions
  • Appearing drunk or intoxicated despite not having consumed alcohol
  • Loss of appetite 

How do inhalants make me feel?

Inhalants can produce a brief, intense rush which can be pleasurable, causing the brain’s reward system to keep seeking out this feeling over and over. The side effects of filling your respiratory system and lungs with toxic vapours and gases can leave you feeling very sick.

The short-term effects of taking inhalants include: 

  • Muscle relaxation, including a loss of bowel control
  • Drowsiness
  • Headaches
  • Severe, long-lasting headaches
  • Nausea
  • Breathing difficulties including asphyxiation (using a plastic bag)
  • Feeling like nothing can hurt you 
  • Sudden death

Inhalant abuse over extended periods of time starts to take its toll on your body - especially the respiratory and nervous systems. If you use inhalants for a long time, you will probably start to feel serious effects, such as: 

  • Weak muscles 
  • Poor coordination and balance 
  • Shortness of breath whilst exercising 
  • Hearing loss
  • Difficulty concentrating or learning new things
  • Memory loss
  • Anxiety and paranoia
  • Shakes or tremors
  • Respiratory issues
  • Brain damage
  • Dependence
  • Irregular heart rhythm or heart failure
  • Coma
  • Pimples around mouth and lips 
  • Weight loss
  • Loss of hearing and smell
  • Problems with blood production
  • Organ damage

What to do in case of inhalant overdose or Harmful USE

If you or someone you know has taken inhalants
 

Please seek medical attention immediately if you or your friends experience any unwanted effects of inhalant use. Phone 000 for an ambulance immediately and tell the operator that there has been an overdose. If you are calling about your own use, do not try to hide the fact that you have used inhalants – be completely honest about the amount and how recently it was used. Whilst waiting for emergency services, immediately inform a friend or family member who can support you during this time.

If you are calling for someone you know, you can help them by providing emergency services with as much information as possible about the person and the situation you have found them in. If you find someone unconscious and there is evidence of inhalant use, such as:

  • whipped cream canisters
  • spray paints
  • nail polish
  • compressed air cans
  • plastic bags with unknown liquids in them

Provide first aid – by first checking that they are responsive to your voice and are breathing – and, if possible, try to find out if they have taken other drugs (including alcohol) as well, as this can increase the risk of serious complications. Stay with the person and call a friend or family member for assistance until help arrives. Usually the police will not be informed and will not attend unless ambulance officers feel their safety or the safety of others/a child is at risk, the person cannot be resuscitated or a crime is committed (such as theft or violence). The priority is making sure the person gets the right help immediately in an emergency.

The signs of overdose include:

  • Nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Heart problems such as chest pain and irregular heartbeat
  • Blackouts, seizures, coma
  • Sudden death

Reducing the risks of inhalant USE

Inhalants can cause serious damage to your body and psychological well-being, even from limited use. Extending the session in which you are inhaling and taking multiple ‘hits’ will increase the risk of serious damage. Because inhalants may be more readily accessible than other substances, dependency can form quickly and be difficult to break. The best way to overcome inhalant dependency is to seek help. Because inhalants interfere with the body’s central nervous system, withdrawal symptoms can be unpleasant, differing from person to person and ranging from mild to severe. Seeking help before this is important so the right support is available to get through this period.

Withdrawal Symptoms may include overactive bodily functions such as:

  • Nausea and anxiety
  • Fatigue and tremors
  • Hallucinations

Legal issues of inhalant Use

Because inhalants can reduce inhibitions and cause temporary loss of control over your body, it is never safe to drive a car or go to work when using inhalants. Accidents are far more likely to occur if you are using inhalants and this could result in legal problems as a result. People sometimes resort to unusual or illegal behaviour to support an inhalant dependency, including shoplifting or stealing from employers to get 'high'. 

Getting help for inhalant use

If inhalants are a problem for you or someone you know and you would like to speak to a real person to have your questions answered or to get advice on what to do next, call 1300 858 584 (Alcohol & Drug Foundation Information Line). 

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