Published on March 6th, 2014

There are many types of abused drugs that can be inhaled. However, the term inhalant stands for a wide array of substances such as solvents, aerosols, gases and nitrites that are typically only inhaled when abused.

These inhalant substances are easily found in the home or work place; paints, markers, glues and cleaning fluids. Each contains a volatile substance that creates psychoactive effects when inhaled. Most people would not label these products as drugs because this is not the purpose they were intended for, however it is not uncommon that they be abused in that way. Many young children and adolescents (although no exclusively) will abuse these products for unintended purposes, in hopes of creating a psychoactive high.

How Are Inhalants Abused?

Inhalants are typically breathed in through the nose or mouth in various ways that are known as “huffing”. The fumes may be sniffed or snorted from a container or dispensers, aerosol sprays may be expressed directly into the individuals mouth or nose, a chemical-soaked rag placed over the individuals mouth, or by using a plastic bag or balloon to inhale the fumes. Users typically will binge for hours when getting high on inhalants because the effects only last a few minutes, they will take continuous hits in attempts to sustain their high.

Studies show that the type of inhalant products abused often varies by age. Research has shown that new users ranging from 12-15 years old will commonly abuse glue, shoe polish, spray paints, gasoline, and lighter fluid. While new users ages 16–17  commonly abuse nitrous oxide or “whippets.” A class of inhalants known as nitrites (such as amyl nitrites or “poppers”) are commonly abused by adults.

How Do Inhalants Affect the Brain?

Most abused inhalants (other than nitrites) work by depressing the central nervous system in a similar way of alcohol. The effects of this include; slurred speech, lack of coordination, euphoria, and dizziness. The abusers may also experience light-headedness, hallucinations, and delusions. Regular use of inhalations can cause the individual to feel less inhibited and less in control. Commonly individuals abusing inhalants will feel drowsy for several hours and experience a lingering headache.

Nitrites enhance sexual pleasure by dilating and relaxing blood vessels, unlike other commonly abused substances.

Prolonged use of inhalants can cause an addiction to occur, however it is fairly uncommon.

What Are the Other Health Effects of Inhalants

There are various short term effects associated with inhalant abuse due to the chemicals that are found within them. Commonly abusers will experience nausea or vomiting as a result of its use. There are also many serious long-term consequences to inhalant abuse that may include liver and kidney damage, hearing loss, or bone marrow damage. Abusers may experience a loss of coordination and limb spasms due to damage to myelin, which is a protective sheathing around nerve fibers that helps nerves transmit messages in the brain and peripheral nervous system. There is also are great risk of brain damage when abusing inhalants because it cuts off oxygen flow to the brain.

Many inhalant abusers are under the misconception that because it is a commonly found product that it is safe to use, this is far from the truth, in fact inhalants can be lethal. When sniffing highly concentrated amounts of chemicals found in solvents or aerosol sprays the user is at great risk as they can directly cause heart failure within minutes, this is known as “sudden sniffing death,” which can result from a single session of inhalant use by an otherwise healthy young person. There is also a risk of death by suffocation when abusing these high concentrations of inhalants, especially when the individual is inhaling from a paper or plastic bag, or other closed area.


Nitrites are abused to enhance sexual pleasure and performance and can be associated with unsafe sexual practices that increase the risk of contracting and spreading infectious diseases like HIV/AIDS and hepatitis.

Products Abused as Inhalants

Volatile solvents—liquids that vaporize at room temperature including but not limited to; paint thinners or removers, degreasers, dry-cleaning fluids, gasoline, lighter fluid, correction fluids, felt-tip marker fluid, electronic contact cleaners, and glue

Aerosols—sprays that contain propellants and solvents including but not limited to; spray paints, hair or deodorant sprays, fabric protector sprays, aerosol computer cleaning products, and vegetable oil sprays

Gases—found in household or commercial products and used as medical anesthetics including but not limited to;  butane lighters and propane tanks, whipped cream aerosols or dispensers, refrigerant gases, chloroform, halothane, and nitrous oxide (“laughing gas”)

Nitrites—used primarily as sexual enhancers which are organic nitrites are volatiles that include cyclohexyl, butyl, and amyl nitrites, commonly known as “poppers.” Amyl nitrite is still used in certain diagnostic medical procedures.

Statistics and Trends

Monitoring the Future Study: Trends in Prevalence of Inhalants for 8th-Graders, 10th-Graders, and 12th-Graders; 2013 (in percent)*
Drug Time Period 8th-Graders 10th-Graders 12th-Graders
Inhalants Lifetime 10.80 8.70 6.90
Past Year [5.20] 3.50 2.50
Past Month 2.30 1.30 1.00
National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Trends in Prevalence of Inhalants for Ages 12 or Older, Ages 12 to 17, Ages 18 to 25, and Ages 26 or Older; 2012 (in percent)*
Drug Time Period Ages 12 or Older Ages 12 to 17 Ages 18 to 25 Ages 26 or Older
Inhalants Lifetime 8.10 [6.50] 8.40 8.30
Past Year 0.70 [2.60] 1.40 0.30
Past Month 0.20 0.80 0.40 0.10


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