Scope of the problem
Types of inhalants
Dangers of inhalant abuse
Who's abusing inhalants?
About 17 percent of adolescents in this country say that they have
sniffed inhalants-usually volatile solvents such as spray paint,
glue, or cigarette lighter fluid-at least once in their lives, according
to the National Institute on Drug Abuse's Monitoring the Future
study, a national survey of 8th, 10th and 12th grade students. In
fact, results from a number of surveys suggest that among children
under 18, the level of use of inhalants is comparable to that of
stimulants and is exceeded only by the level of use of marijuana,
alcohol, and cigarettes.
The abuse of inhalants, which includes a broad array of cheap and
easily obtainable household products is not viewed traditionally
in the same high-risk categories as drugs such as alcohol, cocaine,
and heroin. Some people tend to view inhalant "sniffing,"
"snorting," "bagging" (fumes inhaled from a
plastic bag), or "huffing" (inhalant-soaked rag in the
mouth) as a kind of childish fad to be equated with youthful experiments
But inhalant abuse is deadly serious. Sniffing volatile solvents,
which includes most inhalants, can cause severe damage to the brain
and nervous system. By starving the body of oxygen or forcing the
heart to beat more rapidly and erratically, inhalants can kill sniffers,
most of whom are adolescents.
Inhalant abuse came to public attention in the 1950's when the
news media reported that young people who were seeking a cheap "high"
were sniffing glue. The term "glue sniffing" is still
widely used, often to include inhalation of a broad range of common
products besides glue. With so many substances lumped together as
inhalants, research data describing frequency and trends of inhalant
abuse are uneven and sometimes contradictory. However, evidence
indicates that inhalant abuse is more common among all socioeconomic
levels of American youth than is typically recognized by parents
and the public. For instance, NIDA’s Monitoring the Future
survey shows that one in every five 8th graders, or 19.4 percent
has used an inhalant in his or her lifetime.
A major roadblock to recognizing the size of the inhalant problem
is the ready availability of products that are inhaled. Inhalants
are cheap and can be purchased legally in retail stores in a variety
of seemingly harmless products. As a result, adolescents who sniff
inhalants to get high don't face the drug procurement obstacles
that confront abusers of other drugs.
Volatile solvents originally were limited to
either gases, such as butane or liquids, such as gasoline or paint
thinner, that vaporize at room temperature. Since the 1950’s,
however, the types of products that contain volatile solvents
has increased significantly. They now include adhesives, aerosols,
cleaning agents, food products and solvents.
Volatile solvents produce a quick form of intoxication-excitation
followed by drowsiness, disinhibition, staggering, lightheartedness,
and agitation. Because many inhalant products contain more than
one volatile solvent, it is difficult to clearly identify in humans
the specific chemical responsible for subsequent brain or nerve
damage or death. Some volatile solvents are inhaled by abusers
because of the effects produced not by the product's primary ingredient
but by propellant gases, like those used in aerosols such as hair
spray or spray paint.
Nitrites historically have been used by certain
groups, largely gay men, to enhance sexual experience and pleasure.
Often called "poppers' or "rush," some nitrite
products are sold as room air fresheners. But use of nitrites
has fallen off dramatically in recent years. This may be partly
because products containing butyl, propyl, and certain other nitrites
were banned in 1991.
Anesthetics are the other major category of
inhalants with the principal substance of abuse being nitrous
oxide. A colorless, sweet-tasting gas used by doctors and dentists
for general anesthesia, nitrous oxide is called "laughing
gas" because it often induces a state of giggling and laughter.
Nitrous oxide often is sold in large balloons from which the gas
is released and inhaled for its mind-altering effects. But nitrous
oxide is no laughing matter. Inhaling the gas may deplete the
body of oxygen and can result in death; prolonged use can result
in peripheral nerve damage.
|toluene, ethyl acetate
hexane, toluene, methyl chloride, acetone
|butane, propane, flourocarbons
butane, propane, flourocarbons
butane, propane, flourocarbons
|tetrachloroethylene, trichloroethane, trichloroethylene
tetrachloroethylene, trichloroethane, trichloroethylene
||Correction fluid thinners
toluene, methylene chloride, methanol
toluene, methylene chloride, methanol
Survey data on the prevalence of inhalant abuse is difficult to
obtain for a number of reasons, and information that does exist
may under-emphasize the severity of the situation. No one knows
how many adolescents and young people die each year from inhalant
abuse, in part because medical examiners often attribute deaths
from inhalant abuse to suffocation, suicide, or accidents. What's
more, no national system exists for gathering data on the extent
of inhalant-related injuries.
Although no central system exists in the United States for reporting
deaths and injuries from abusing inhalants, several studies have
documented the dangers associated with inhalant abuse. A study by
Dr. James C. Garriott, the chief toxicologist in San Antonio and
Bexar County, Texas, examined all deaths in the county between 1982
and 1988 that were attributed to inhalant abuse. Most of the 39
inhalant-related deaths involved teenagers, with 21 deaths occurring
among people less than 20 years old. Deaths of males outnumbered
those of females 34 to 5. Many of the abusers met with a violent
death possibly related to but not directly caused by the use of
As reported in a Texas study, the solvent toluene, a common component
of many paints, lacquers, glues, inks, and cleaning fluids, is identified
frequently in inhalant abuse deaths and injuries. A 1986 study of
20 chronic abusers of toluene-containing spray paints found that
after one month of abstinence from sniffing the paint, 65 percent
of the abusers had damage to the nervous system. Such damage can
lead to impaired perception, reasoning, and memory, as well as defective
muscular coordination and, eventually, dementia.
NIDA’s Dr. Sharp indicates that butane gas is the cause of
enough deaths to foster national concern about the abuse of fuel
gases, whether or not it is a passing form of inhalant abuse. "For
instance, in certain parts of the country, Texas 'shoe-shine' (a
shoe-shining spray containing toluene) and silver or gold spray
paints are local or current favorites," he says. Since the
banishing of fluorocarbons, the most common sniffing death hazards
among students in the United States probably are due to butane and
One possible reason for the increased use of volatile solvents
is that more girls are joining boys in sniffing solvents. The rates
of solvent use for males and females have been converging over the
past 20 years. Recent studies in New York and Texas report that
males are using solvents at only slightly higher rates than females
are. Among Native Americans, whose solvent abuse rates are the highest
of any ethnic group, lifetime prevalence rates for males and females
were nearly identical, according to National Institute on Drug Abuse
In fact, inhalant abuse shows episodic patterns, with short-term
abuse outbreaks developing in a particular school or region as a
specific inhalant practice or product becomes popular in a fashion
typical of teenage fads. This episodic pattern can be reflected
in survey results and can overstate the magnitude of what is a continually
fluctuating level of abuse.
Inhalant abusers typically use other drugs as well. Children as
young as 4th graders who begin to use volatile solvents also will
start experimenting with other drugs, usually alcohol and marijuana.
Adolescent solvent abusers are typically polydrug users and are
prone to use whatever is available, although they do show a preference
for solvents. However, solvent abuse is often held in low regard
by older adolescents, who may consider it unsophisticated, a "kid"
For further information on Serenity Lane's treatment of inhalant
abuse, call (541) 687-1110 or toll free 1-800-543-9905.