Short and Long-Term Effects of Inhalant Drugs

Although many parents are appropriately concerned about illicit drugs such as marijuanacocaine, and LSD, they often ignore the dangers posed to their children from common household products that contain volatile solvents or aerosols.

The practice of "sniffing glue" has been around for generations, but most parents do not even consider that their child would participate in something so obviously dangerous. Unfortunately, many children do.

Products such as nail polish remover, lighter fluid, spray paints, deodorant and hair sprays, canned whipped cream, and cleaning fluids are widely available and easy to obtain. Many young people inhale the vapors from these sources in search of quick intoxication without being aware of the serious health consequences that can result.

Of course, children are not the only ones huffing inhalants. It's a cheap high for adults who cannot afford the cost of illicit street drugs.


What Are Inhalants?

Teenage girl inhaling drugs

BananaStock / Getty Images 

Inhalants are substances, usually found in common household products, that produce chemical vapors that can be inhaled to get high. Inhaling these vapors gives the person a mind-altering effect.

There are many substances that can be inhaled, but when we refer to inhalants, we are referring to a group of substances that are rarely taken by any other method than inhaling them.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, there are four general categories of inhalants which are found in common household, industrial or medical products. They include volatile solvents, aerosols, gases, and nitrites.

Following are details about each category of inhalant:

Volatile Solvents

Liquids that vaporize at room temperature are known as volatile solvents. They are found in the following products:

  • Correction fluids
  • Degreasers
  • Dry-cleaning fluids
  • Felt-tip markers
  • Gasoline
  • Glues
  • Paint thinners and removers


Aerosols are chemical sprays that contain either propellants or solvents or both. They include:

  • Cooking sprays
  • Deodorant sprays
  • Fabric protector sprays
  • Hair sprays
  • Spray paint


Gases that can be abused as inhalants include medical anesthetics and gases found in common household or commercial products. Some of these include:

  • Butane lighters
  • Chloroform
  • Ether
  • Halothane
  • Nitrous oxide (laughing gas)
  • Propane tanks
  • Refrigerants

The above three categories of inhalants act on the central nervous system and give the user a psychoactive effect, either mind-altering or mood-altering or both. Nitrites, on the other hand, affect the body differently.


Nitrites work mainly by dilating blood vessels and relaxing muscles. They are abused primarily as sexual enhancers and are therefore considered in a different class of inhalants.

Known as poppers or snappers, nitrite inhalants include:

  • Cyclohexyl nitrite
  • Isoamyl (amyl) nitrite
  • Isobutyl (butyl) nitrite

Once prescribed for heart pain, nitrites are now prohibited by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. They can still be found on the market, however, sold as products labeled: "video head cleaner," "room odorizer," "leather cleaner," or "liquid aroma."


What Are the Patterns of Inhalant Abuse?

Because of their availability in common household products, inhalants are often the first drugs that young children use. In fact, inhalants are used more by younger children than by older adolescents.

Although children are the main abusers, inhalant abuse can become chronic and last into adulthood. But typically, National Institute on Drug Abuse research shows that inhalant abuse peaks around eighth grade.

Peaks in the 8th Grade

Data from NIDA-funded surveys indicate the following patterns of inhalant abuse:

  • The prevalence was highest among children aged 12 to 17, peaking among 14-year-olds.
  • The Monitoring the Future study of 8th-, 10th, and 12th-graders shows a higher rate of inhalant abuse for 8th graders than children in the higher grades.

Girls Abuse Inhalants, Too

Other research shows patterns of gender differences in the use of inhalants. Boys are more likely to abuse inhalants in grades 4 through 6 and also grades 10 through 12, but boys and girls in grades 7 through 9 have similar rates of inhalant abuse.

The National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (NHSDA) also indicated similar rates of inhalant abuse for boys and girls in the 12-17 age group. But for the 18-25 age group, the rate of inhalant abuse for males was twice that of females.

Inhalant abuse is found in both urban and rural youth and socioeconomic conditions seem to be more significant contributing factors to inhalant abuse than racial or cultural factors, the NIDA reports. Factors linked to increased inhalant abuse include poverty, poor grades, dropping out of school and a history of childhood abuse.


What Is the Scope of Inhalant Misuse?

Compared to most illicit drugs, inhalants are misused by a very small percentage of the population, but their use is significant among young children.

In 2015, there were an estimated 1.8 million people over age 12 who had used inhalants over the past 12 months. Of those, about 684,000 were adolescents under the age of 18, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH).

The National Institute on Drug Abuse's 2011 Monitoring the Future survey confirms that younger children (8th graders) use inhalants more than older children (10th and 12th graders), but overall inhalant use has declined significantly since the 1990s.

Additionally, data from the National Capital Poison Center indicates that inhalant cases reported to poison control centers in the United States are down 33% from 1993 to 2008. Poison control center reports show that inhalant misuse is most prevalent among 12- to 17-year-olds, with the peak age 14.

Monitoring the Future data also shows that Hispanic 8th- and 10th-graders have the highest rates of inhalant misuse, compared with White and Black 8th-graders.

Within the 8th-grade age group, 8.6% of girls report using inhalants compared with 5.5% of boys, according to the Monitoring the Future research.


How Are Inhalants Used?

Inhalants are breathed in through the nose or mouth and are rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream through the lungs causing an almost instant high.

Some of the ways that inhalants are used include:

  • Sniffing or snorting vapors from inhalant containers
  • Spraying aerosols directly into the nose or mouth
  • Bagging is the practice of inhaling fumes from chemicals sprayed or placed in a plastic or paper bag
  • Huffing from a rag soaked in inhalants and held to the face or stuffed into the mouth
  • Inhaling from balloons filled with nitrous oxide

No Method of Use Is Safe

Some of the methods used to sniff inhalants are designed specifically to try to cover up the activity.

Sometimes users will place inhalants on the collars or sleeves of their shirts, or on other items of clothing so that they can inhale the fumes while in school or at work.

The inhalants are placed in soda cans and inhaled from the can. Or they are sprayed into a balloon. Sometimes they are even sprayed inside a backpack. Some school items such as correction fluid or felt-tip markers can be inhaled, making their use easy to disguise as normal use in school or at work.

None of these methods are safe. Placing inhalants in containers like soda cans, plastic or paper bags can intensify the vapors. Each year many children die from inhalant misuse or suffer severe health consequences including permanent brain damage, loss of muscle control, and destruction of the heart, blood, kidney, liver, and bone marrow.

Short Terms Effects Can Be Dangerous Too

Regardless of which of the above methods are used, inhalants produce intoxicating effects within seconds of inhalation. Users can experience slurred speech, uncoordinated movements, euphoria, dizziness, lightheadedness, hallucinations, and delusions.

One of the dangers of inhalant misuse lies in the fact that the high lasts for only a few minutes, prompting users to inhale over and over to try to maintain the feeling. If repeated too often, inhaling can cause a loss of consciousness and possibly death.

Inhalant users report feeling less inhibited and less in control. Heavy users will feel sleepy for several hours afterward and experience lingering headaches.


How Do Inhalants Produce Their Effects?

Scientists believe that most inhalants affect many different systems of the brain to produce their anesthetic, intoxicating and reinforcing effects.

Depending on the chemical being inhaled, the effects can vary widely—some act as stimulants, while others act as depressants.

When some chemicals are inhaled, they can initially act like stimulants, but as the effects wear off, the user's senses can become depressed.

Most inhalants produce a pleasurable effect by depressing the user's central nervous system. The exception is nitrites, which dilate and relax blood vessels instead of acting as an anesthetic agent.

Effects Only Last a Few Minutes

The "high" inhalant users achieve is short-lived, usually only lasting a few minutes. Sometimes this will cause the user to inhale repeatedly, which can cause them to become dizzy or dazed. Some have trouble walking.

Repeated users can become aggressive or begin to hallucinate or they can pass out or even die as a result.

Research with animals indicates that many inhalants have similar neurobehavioral effects and mechanisms of action to other substances that depressed the central nervous system, including alcohol, sedatives, and anesthetics.

One animal study showed that toluene, an ingredient in many inhalants of misuse, activates the dopamine system in the brain in similar ways to nearly all other drugs of misuse.


What Are the Short- and Long-Term Effects of Inhalant Use?

Inhalant use can produce a variety of effects on the user that begin within seconds after the substance is breathed into the lungs.

Initially, the effects of solvent and gas inhalants can mimic alcohol intoxication and excitation which is soon followed by drowsiness, lightheadedness, disinhibition, and agitation. With the inhalation of increased amounts of these type inhalants, they can produce anesthesia and lead to unconsciousness.

Short-Term Effects

Depending on the kind of solvent or gas, inhalants can produce additional effects, which can include:

  • Apathy
  • Belligerence
  • Depressed reflexes
  • Dizziness
  • Drowsiness
  • Euphoria
  • Impaired functioning
  • Impaired judgment
  • Inability to coordinate movements
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Headache
  • Lethargy
  • Muscle weakness
  • Slurred speech
  • Stupor

High dosages of inhalants can result in confusion or delirium.

Effects of Nitrites

Unlike solvents and gases, nitrites act by dilating blood vessels and relaxing the smooth muscle in the vessels. Short-term effects of nitrites include:

  • Excitement
  • Sensation of heat
  • Flush feeling
  • Dizziness
  • Headache

Long-Term Effects of Inhalants

Depending on the chemical being inhaled, inhalants can produce many different long-term harmful effects. Regular inhalant abuse can result in harm to the body's vital organs. Some of these effects are potentially reversible - including liver and kidney damage.

But some long-term effects of inhalant abuse are irreversible, including brain damage, central nervous system damage, hearing loss, limb spasms, and bone marrow damage.

Developing a Tolerance to Inhalants

After prolonged use of inhalants, abusers report a strong need to continue using them. Some users develop a tolerance and must increase the amount they use to achieve the same effects. With long-term abuse, users can develop a compulsive use of inhalants and can experience mild withdrawal syndrome.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, research shows that inhalant users initiate use of cigarettes, alcohol, and almost all other drugs at younger ages than those who did not use inhalants.

Also, early inhalant users are more likely to develop substance use disorders, including abuse of prescription drugs, than other people with no history of inhalants use.


What Are the Medical Consequences of Inhalant Abuse?

Because there are so many different substances that are abused as inhalants, users can risk a long list of serious medical consequences. The abuse of some inhalants can result in sudden death even after one inhaling session.

"Sudden sniffing death" can occur to otherwise healthy young users by inducing irregular and rapid heart rhythms which can lead to cardiac arrest. This can happen within minutes of a single prolonged sniffing session, according to studies.

An estimated 100-200 deaths per year in the United States are inhalant related.

Other Deadly Risks

There are other ways that inhalant abuse can be fatal, including:

  • Asphyxiation: Inhaled fumes can concentrate in the lungs, displacing needed oxygen.
  • Coma: Sniffing can cause the brain to shut down almost all of its functions.
  • Choking: Abusers have died from inhaling their own vomit after sniffing.
  • Convulsions or seizures: Inhalants can produce abnormal electrical discharges in the brain.
  • Fatal injury: Intoxication from inhalants can cause fatal accidents.
  • Suffocation: This can occur when the user is inhaling from a plastic bag placed over the head.

Most Inhalants Are Toxic

NIDA research shows that most substances used as inhalants are very toxic and chronic exposure to them can result in damage to the brain and nervous system. Two such substances—toluene and naphthalene—can cause damage to nerve fibers in the brain and peripheral nervous system similar to damage seen with multiple sclerosis.

Prolonged inhalant abuse can damage regions of the brain that control cognition, movement, vision, and hearing. Chronic users can experience cognitive abnormalities that range from mild impairment to severe dementia, according to the NIDA.

The brain is not the only organ that can be damaged. Inhalants have been found highly toxic to the heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys. Although some of this damage is at least partially reversible, if the users stop abusing inhalants, some effects are irreversible.

Inhaling While Pregnant

NIDA research indicates that inhalant abuse while pregnant can result in reduced birth weights, occasional skeletal abnormalities, and delayed neurobehavioral development among other effects.

Case studies have shown that children of women who abused inhalants during pregnancy were developmentally impaired. Research has not, however, linked any inhalants to specific birth defects or developmental problems.


What Are the Special Risks for Nitrite Abusers?

The dangers of abusing nitrites, known as "poppers," arise from exposure to the substance itself as well as from behaviors associated with the use of the drugs.

Known side-effects of nonmedical use of nitrite inhalants include skin and tracheobronchial irritation; acute toxicity mediated by conditions known as hypokinetic anoxia and methemoglobinemia; and associated disorders of blood and blood-forming organs.

In most cases, nitrites are used by older adolescents and adults in an attempt to enhance sexual function and pleasure. Consequently, the use of these drugs is linked to unsafe sexual behavior which can greatly increase the risk of contracting and spreading infectious diseases, such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis.

Additionally, animal studies have shown that the use of nitrites depletes cells in the user's immune system and impairs the body's mechanisms for fighting infectious diseases. Therefore, researchers have concluded that nitrite abuse may be linked to the development and progression of infectious diseases and tumors.

One animal study found that even a small number of exposures to butyl nitrite results in dramatic increases in tumor development and growth.


Are Girls Involved in Huffing Inhalants?

Actually, a higher percentage of girls than boys abuse inhalants, also known as huffing, according to the latest government statistics. An estimated 1.1 million children between the ages of 12 and 17 use inhalants to get high and a higher percentage of girls than boys are huffing household products, and they start younger than their male counterparts. In 2015, 3.2% of girls used inhalants in the past year, while 2.3% of boys reported huffing.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Drug Facts: Inhalants.

  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Research Report Series: Inhalants.

  3. Wu LT, Pilowsky DJ, Schlenger WE. Inhalant abuse and dependence among adolescents in the United States. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2004;43(10):1206-14. doi:10.1097/01.chi.0000134491.42807.a3

  4. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Understanding Adolescent Inhalant Use.

  5. Howard MO, Bowen SE, Garland EL, Perron BE, Vaughn MG. Inhalant use and inhalant use disorders in the United States. Addict Sci Clin Pract. 2011;6(1):18-31.

Additional Reading

By Buddy T
Buddy T is an anonymous writer and founding member of the Online Al-Anon Outreach Committee with decades of experience writing about alcoholism.