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Inhalant Abuse

Inhalants are chemicals found in certain household and workplace products that produce chemical vapors. These vapors can be inhaled to induce mind-altering effects. Inhaled substances are rapidly absorbed into the brain to produce a quick high. Chronic abuse of inhalants can result in irreversible side effects, such as coma and even death.

Who abuses inhalants?

The peak age of inhalant abuse is age 14 to 15. However, abuse is seen in children as young as 5 to 6 years of age. In many cases, abuse declines by 17 to 19 years of age. However, abuse can continue into adulthood. Inhalant abuse is more common in males than females.

Dr Greenwood notes that higher rates of inhalant abuse have been reported in those with a history of physical or sexual abuse, delinquency, criminal behavior, depression, suicidal behavior, antisocial attitudes, family conflict, violence, and/or drug abuse. Rates are also higher in people of lower income, the mentally ill, those living in rural communities and those in communities with high unemployment rates.

Where are inhalant products found?

There are more than 1,000 commonly used household and workplace products that can be abused as inhalants. Inhalants are convenient, inexpensive, easy to hide and legal. There are four general categories of inhalants: volatile solvents, aerosols, gases, and nitrites.

Volatile solvents

Volatile solvents are liquids that vaporize at room temperature. They are used for household and industrial purposes. Examples of volatile solvents are:

  • Paint thinners.
  • Paint removers.
  • Degreasers.
  • Gasoline.
  • Rubber cement.
  • Lighter fluid.
  • Glues.
  • Nail polish removers.
  • Dry cleaning fluids.
  • Correction fluids.
  • Felt tip markers.


Aerosols are sprays that contain propellants and solvents. Examples of aerosols are:

  • Spray paints.
  • Spray deodorant.
  • Hair spray.
  • Vegetable oil spray.
  • Fabric protector spray.


Gases include medical anesthetics as well as gases used in household or commercial products. Medical anesthetics include chloroform, halothane, and nitrous oxide (laughing gas). Nitrous oxide is the most abused of these gases and can be found in whipped cream dispensers and propellant canisters (often referred to as “whippets”). Nitrous oxide can also be found in products that boost octane levels in racing cars. Other household products containing gas are butane lighters, propane tanks and refrigerants.

How are inhalants abused?

When individuals abuse inhalants, they breathe them in through the nose or mouth in a variety of ways. They may sniff or snort fumes from a container or dispenser, spray aerosols directly into the nose or mouth, or place a chemical-soaked rag over the mouth or nose. They may also inhale substances from a balloon or a plastic or paper bag. This is called “bagging.” Some abuse inhalants by pouring them onto a shirt collar or sleeves and sniffing them periodically. The high from inhalants only lasts a couple of minutes, so abusers prolong it by repeating sniffing over several hours.

How do you know someone is abusing inhalants?

Inhalant abusers may show such signs as:

  • Chemical odors on the breath or clothes.
  • Paint or other stains on hands, fingers or clothes.
  • Changes in behavior including apathy (lack of interest).
  • Significant decrease in appetite and weight loss.
  • Sudden change in friends and hobbies.
  • Rapid decline in school performance.
  • Poor hygiene and grooming habits.
  • Slurred speech.
  • Runny nose or nosebleeds.
  • Tiredness.
  • Ulcers or irritation around the nose and mouth.

Comprehensive Treatment

Although there are few centers in the United States that specialize in treating inhalant abuse or addiction, Dr Greenwood advices that most addiction treatment programs can address inhalant abuse and addiction issues. Inpatient rehabilitation can be ideal for people who suffer from inhalant addiction, since medical help for withdrawal symptoms is available, along with individual and group therapy.

One of the long-term effects of inhalant abuse includes psychosis. This can be triggered in people who already have a psychological or genetic inclination toward developing psychiatric problems. It’s important that any chosen treatment program is equipped to treat this.