Inhalants are volatile substances that produce chemical vapors that can be inhaled to induce a psychoactive, or mind-altering, effect. Although other abused substances can be inhaled, the term “inhalants” is used to describe a variety of substances whose main common characteristic is that they are rarely, if ever, taken by any route other than inhalation. This definition encompasses a broad range of chemicals that may have different pharmacological effects and are found in hundreds of different products. As a result, precise categorization of inhalants is difficult. One classification system lists four general categories of inhalants — volatile solvents, aerosols, gases, and nitrites — based on the forms in which they are often found in household, industrial, and medical products.
Inhalants can be breathed in through the nose or the mouth in a variety of ways, such as—
According to the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), there were 793,000 persons aged 12 or older who had used inhalants for the first time within the past 12 months; 68.4 percent were under the age of 18. In fact, inhalants — particularly volatile solvents, gases, and aerosols — are often the easiest and first options for abuse among young children who use drugs. NIDA’s annual MTF survey of 8th-, 10th-, and 12th-graders consistently reports the highest rates of current, past-year, and lifetime inhalant use among 8th-graders.
Inhalant use has decreased significantly among 8th-, 10th-, and 12th-graders compared to its peak years in the mid-1990s (see figure). According to the 2011 MTF survey, past-year use was reported as 7.0, 4.5, and 3.2 percent, for 8th-, 10th-, and 12th-graders, respectively. Data compiled by the National Capital Poison Center also show a decrease in the prevalence of inhalant cases reported to U.S. poison control centers — down 33 percent from 1993 to 2008. The prevalence was highest among children aged 12 to 17, peaking among 14-year-olds.
Inhaled chemicals are absorbed rapidly into the bloodstream through the lungs and are quickly distributed to the brain and other organs. Within seconds of inhalation, the user experiences intoxication along with other effects similar to those produced by alcohol. Alcohol-like effects may include slurred speech; the inability to coordinate movements; euphoria; and dizziness. In addition, users may experience lightheadedness, hallucinations, and delusions.
Because intoxication lasts only a few minutes, abusers frequently seek to prolong the high by inhaling repeatedly over the course of several hours, which is a very dangerous practice. With successive inhalations, abusers can suffer loss of consciousness and possibly even death. At the least, they will feel less inhibited and less in control. After heavy use of inhalants, abusers may feel drowsy for several hours and experience a lingering headache.