Physical Effects of Inhalant Abuse

Physical Effects of Inhalant Abuse

Physical Effects of Inhalant Abuse

Physical Effects of Inhalant AbuseInhalant is a general term used to describe a wide range of commercially made products that produce chemical vapors, including substances such as gases, aerosols, volatile solvents, and nitrites. As the name implies, some drug users seeking intoxicating or mind-altering effects abuse these products by inhaling their vapors. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, nearly 800,000 Americans abuse some form of inhalant each year; almost 70 percent of these abusers are children, pre-teens and teenagers under the age of 18. Inhalant use can trigger an array of minor, serious, or potentially fatal health-related side effects.

Inhalant Basics

Gases commonly used as inhalants include refrigerants, propane, butane, and anesthetic products such as nitrous oxide (laughing gas, whippets), halothane, chloroform, and ether. Common aerosol inhalants include hair sprays, spray paints, deodorant sprays, fabric sprays, and cooking sprays. Types of volatile solvent inhalants include gasoline, paint remover, paint thinner, dry-cleaning fluid, various glue products, felt-tip markers, and degreasers. Nitrites are also known as “poppers;” commonly abused forms of these substances include amyl nitrite (isoamyl nitrite), butyl nitrite (isobutyl nitrite) and cyclohexyl nitrite.

Inhalant gases, aerosols and volatile solvents achieve their “desired” effects by suppressing normal activity in your brain and spinal cord (also known as your central nervous system). Although specific effects of this suppression vary from chemical to chemical, generally speaking, these substances produce a form of mind-altering intoxication that resembles the effects of alcohol. Nitrites achieve their “desired” effects by relaxing your muscles and dilating blood vessels throughout your body. Instead of alcohol-like intoxication, these substances produce a sense of excitement, as well as a heightening of sexual experiences.

Relatively Minor Short-Term Effects

Gases, aerosols, and volatile solvents commonly produce relatively minor short-term side effects that include nausea, vomiting, apathetic behavior, impaired motor function, impaired social abilities, impaired judgment, slurred speech, dizziness, headaches, agitation, belligerent or aggressive behavior, stupor, and drowsiness. At higher doses, these substances can also produce delirium or a state of confusion. In addition, high doses of gases and volatile solvents can result in numbness and unconsciousness. Despite their designation as relatively minor, many of these side effects can produce serious or deadly consequences when they result in car crashes or other types of accidents. Minor short-term side effects of nitrites include headaches, heart rate acceleration, skin flushing, and dizziness.

Fatal Short-Term Effects

Abusers of aerosol sprays and volatile solvents (especially butane and propane) run the risk of developing sudden sniffing death syndrome (SSDS), a condition that occurs when the combined effects of inhalant use and either physical or emotional agitation make the heart muscle abnormally sensitive to the presence of a naturally occurring hormone called adrenaline (epinephrine). In reaction to this sensitivity, the heart starts beating irregularly; in turn, this heartbeat irregularity triggers a sudden, fatal heart stoppage (cardiac arrest). SSDS typically occurs during inhalant use or shortly thereafter-no one can predict its onset, and it can affect anyone, regardless of previous heart-related health.

Other forms of rapid, unpredictable death that can occur in inhalant abusers include oxygen deprivation and subsequent suffocation associated with “huffing” fumes from a plastic bag; seizures associated with electrical disturbances in the brain; choking associated with accidental vomit inhalation; asphyxiation associated with high fume concentrations that result in oxygen deprivation; and coma, which can occur when inhalant use triggers a shutdown of most normal brain functions.

Long-Term Effects

The vast majority of abused inhalants act as toxins inside the human body, and chronic exposure to these toxins can produce damage in a number of different organs. For instance, ongoing exposure to most volatile solvents can damage the fat-containing sheaths that normally protect specific nerves in both your central nervous system and your peripheral nervous system, which includes the nerves that supply control and sensation throughout your body. In turn, this damage can produce symptoms that closely resemble the symptoms of multiple sclerosis and similar nerve disorders. Inhalant-related damage in the central nervous system can also degrade vital brain functions that include your ability to see, hear, move your body, and think normally. Additional organs damaged by various forms of chronic inhalant abuse include the kidneys, heart, liver, and lungs. In some cases, the nerve and organ damage associated with inhalant use is permanent.

Effects on Pregnancy

No one has fully studied the effects of inhalant abuse on normal fetal growth and development, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reports. However, limited studies indicate that pregnant girls and women who abuse specific inhalant substances can trigger harmful outcomes in newborns that include low birthweight, impaired general development, damage to normal metabolism, abnormal skeletal development, and poor development of nervous system control.

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