What are inhalants?

Inhalants are a variety of substances that can only produce a “high” when taken through inhalation. Many drugs can be used through inhalation but typically they are also used other ways and fall under another class of drug abuse. Inhalants include:

  • solvents (liquids that become gas at room temperature)
  • aerosol sprays
  • gases
  • nitrites (prescription medicines for chest pain)

Inhalant addictions are dangerous because they can easily be found at home, at work, or at local stores. Although many of inhalants now require ID like spray paint, there are still many that don’t i.e. markers, glues, and cleaning fluids. Inhalants have many chemicals in them that can alter the mind and produce a “high” feeling in the user. Inhalant use is dangerous because it can easily be overdosed and most aren’t aware of the affects these common items produce. Inhalant addiction is more common in teens with most usage from the younger teens.

How do people use inhalants?

People who use inhalants breathe in the fumes through their nose or mouth, usually by “sniffing,” “snorting,” “bagging,” or “huffing.” It’s called different names depending on the substance and equipment they use.

Although the high that inhalants produce usually lasts just a few minutes, people often try to make it last by continuing to inhale again and again over several hours.

Products Used as Inhalants


  • paint thinners or removers
  • dry-cleaning fluids
  • gasoline
  • lighter fluid
  • correction fluids
  • felt-tip marker fluid
  • electronic contact cleaners
  • glue


  • spray paints
  • hair or deodorant sprays
  • aerosol computer cleaning products
  • vegetable oil sprays


  • butane lighters
  • propane tanks
  • whipped cream aerosols or dispensers (whippets)
  • ether
  • chloroform
  • nitrous
  • oxide


  • video head cleaner
  • room odorizer
  • leather cleaner
  • liquid aroma

How do inhalants affect the brain?

Most inhalants affect the central nervous system and slow down brain activity. Short-term effects are similar to alcohol and include:

  • slurred or distorted speech
  • lack of coordination (control of body movement)
  • euphoria (feeling “high”)
  • dizziness
  • People may also feel light-headed or have hallucinations (images/sensations that seem real but aren’t) or delusions (false beliefs). With repeated inhalations, many people feel less self-conscious and less in control. Some may start vomiting, feel drowsy for several hours, or have a headache that lasts a while.

Unlike other types of inhalants, nitrites, which are often prescribed to treat chest pain, are misused in order to improve sexual pleasure by expanding and relaxing blood vessels.

What are the other health effects of inhalants?

Long-term effects of inhalant use may include:

  • liver and kidney damage
  • hearing loss
  • bone marrow damage
  • loss of coordination and limb spasms (from nerve damage)
  • delayed behavioral development (from brain problems)
  • brain damage (from cut-off oxygen flow to the brain)

In addition, because nitrites are misused for sexual pleasure and performance, they can lead to unsafe sexual practices or other risky behavior. This increases the chance of getting or spreading infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS or hepatitis.

Can a person overdose on inhalants?

Yes, a person can overdose on inhalants. An overdose occurs when a person uses too much of a drug and has a toxic reaction that results in serious, harmful symptoms or death.

These symptoms can cause seizures and coma. They can even be deadly. Many solvents and aerosol sprays are highly concentrated, meaning they contain a large amount of chemicals with a lot of active ingredients. Sniffing these products can cause the heart to stop within minutes. This condition, known as sudden sniffing death, can happen to an otherwise healthy young person the first time he or she uses an inhalant. Using inhalants with a paper or plastic bag or in a closed area may cause death from suffocation (being unable to breathe).

How can an inhalant overdose be treated?

Because inhalant overdose can lead to seizures or cause the heart to stop, first responders and emergency room doctors try to treat the overdose by treating these conditions. They will try to stop the seizure or restart the heart.

Those who try to quit inhalants may have withdrawal symptoms that include:

  • nausea
  • loss of appetite
  • sweating
  • problems sleeping
  • mood changes

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Source: National Institute on Drug Abuse; National Institutes of Health; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.