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Primer: A Parent's Guide to Inhalant Abuse

Inhalants are breathable chemical vapors that produce mind-altering effects. These extremely toxic chemicals can cause death by suffocation, or they can irreversibly damage the brain, liver and kidneys and cause hearing loss.

Knowing the following facts about inhalants can help you protect your children.

Most users start abusing the substances before age 13. One national survey indicates that about 6 percent of U.S. children have tried inhalants by the time they reach fourth grade. Inhalants also are one of the few substances abused more by younger children than by older ones. Nevertheless, inhalant abuse can become chronic and extend into adulthood. Data from national and state surveys suggest that inhalant abuse reaches its peak during the seventh through ninth grades.

Inhalant sources

More than 1,000 household products can harm the body when inhaled. Most act on the central nervous system. The National Institute on Drug Abuse classifies inhalants in four general categories:

  • Volatile solvents. These vaporize at room temperature and include paint thinners and removers, dry-cleaning fluids, degreasers, gasoline, glues, correction fluids, and felt-tip marker fluids.

  • Aerosols. These are sprays that contain propellants and solvents. They include spray paints, deodorant and hair sprays, vegetable oil sprays for cooking and fabric protector sprays.

  • Gases. These are gases used in household or commercial products, but also include medical anesthesia products such as ether, chloroform, halothane, and nitrous oxide. Nitrous oxide can be found in whipped cream dispensers and products that boost octane levels in racing cars. Household or commercial products containing gases include butane lighters, propane tanks, whipped cream dispensers, and refrigerants.

  • Nitrites. These substances dilate the blood vessels and relax the muscles. Instead of altering mood, as the other three categories of inhalants do, nitrites enhance sex. Nitrites include cyclohexyl nitrite, isoamyl (amyl) nitrite, and isobutyl (butyl) nitrite, and are commonly known as "poppers" or "snappers." Nitrites are banned by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, but can still be found as "video head cleaner," "room odorizer" or "liquid aroma."


Inhalants can be breathed in through the nose or the mouth in a variety of ways, such as:

  • Sniffing or snorting fumes from containers

  • Spraying aerosols directly into the nose or mouth

  • Bagging, which is sniffing or inhaling fumes from substances sprayed or deposited inside a plastic or paper bag

  • Huffing from an inhalant-soaked rag held up to or stuffed in the mouth

  • Inhaling from balloons filled with nitrous oxide


When inhaled via the nose or mouth in sufficient concentrations, inhalants can cause intoxicating effects. Initially, users may feel slightly stimulated, then less inhibited and less in control with successive inhalations.

Sniffing highly concentrated amounts of the chemicals in solvents or aerosol sprays can induce heart failure and death. High concentrations of inhalants also can cause death from suffocation by displacing oxygen in the lungs and then in the central nervous system.

Fatal dose

A very high concentration of fumes usually causes death from inhalants.

Deliberately inhaling a substance from inside a paper or plastic bag or in an enclosed area greatly increases the chances of suffocation. A lengthy session of inhalant abuse can cause irregular and rapid heartbeats. A healthy young person can die from one single sniffing session; this is particularly true for the inhalants butane, propane and aerosol chemicals.

Death also can be caused by:

  • Convulsions or seizures

  • Coma

  • Choking, from inhaling vomit

  • Fatal injury from accidents that occur while intoxicated

Remain calm if you catch your child abusing inhalants. Immediately remove or push the can, bag, or rag away and then stay with a conscious child in a well-ventilated room. If the child is unconscious or not breathing, call for emergency medical assistance and administer CPR if trained to do so.

Seek professional help from a counselor or health care provider once your child has recovered.

Signs of abuse

These are signs of possible inhalant abuse:

  • Red or runny eyes or nose

  • Slurred speech

  • Stains on the body or clothing

  • Sores or spots around the mouth or nose

  • Chemical odor or some other unusual odor on skin or clothes

  • Drunk, dazed or dizzy appearance

  • Nausea and loss of appetite

  • Anxiety, excitability and/or irritability, depression

  • Empty spray paint or solvent containers, particularly if they have been hidden

Preventing inhalant abuse begins with education and awareness. If you suspect your child uses inhalants, discuss the matter with him or her frankly, and stress that they're deadly, poisonous chemicals.