What are inhalants?
Street names: glue, gas, sniff (solvents); whippets (nitrous oxide); poppers, snappers, room odourizers, aromas—some sold under “brand” names such as Rush, Bolt, Jungle Juice (nitrites)
The term “inhalants” refers to chemical
vapours or gases that produce a “high” when they are breathed in. Most
of the substances used as inhalants, such as glue, gasoline, cleaning
solvents and aerosols, have legitimate everyday uses, but they were
never meant for human consumption. Inhalants are cheap, legal and easy
to get. They have a high potential for abuse—especially by children and
There are hundreds of different kinds of inhalants, roughly dividing into four different types:
- Volatile solvents: These are the most commonly abused type of
inhalants. “Volatile” means they evaporate when exposed to air, and
“solvent” means they dissolve many other substances. Examples of
solvents used as inhalants include benzene, toluene, xylene, acetone,
naptha and hexane. Products such as gasoline,cleaning fluids, paint
thinners, hobby glue, correction fluid and felt-tip markers contain a
mixture of different types of solvents.
- Aerosol or spray cans: Hair spray, spray paint, cooking spray and
other aerosol products contain pressurized liquids or gases such as
fluorocarbon and butane. Some aerosol products also contain solvents.
- Gases: This includes some medical anesthetics, such as nitrous oxide
(“laughing gas”), chloroform, halothane and ether, as well as gases
found in commercially available products, such as butane lighters and
- Nitrites: Amyl nitrite, butyl nitrite and cyclohexyl nitrite (also
known as “poppers”) are different from other inhalants in effect and
Where do inhalants come from?
Many inhalants are widely available as commercial products. It is
hard to prevent their use because these products are found in many homes
and workplaces. Some manufacturers taint their products to try to make
them less appealing to use as inhalants, but this has not prevented use.
Stores may refuse to sell certain products to minors or people who are
intoxicated, but there are no laws that enforce this in Ontario.
What do inhalants look like, and how are they used?
Solvent and aerosol products—on the store shelf, in the kitchen
cupboard or in the workshop—would not be noticed by most people as
When solvents are used as drugs, they are either inhaled directly
from the container (“sniffed”), from a soaked rag held to the face
(“huffed”) or from a bag (“bagged”). Sometimes people spray aerosols
into a bag or balloon and then inhale the gas.
Nitrous oxide or other anesthetic gases intended for medical use are
contained in a gas tank; nitrous oxide is also found in whipped cream
dispensers. Because nitrous oxide is pressurized and can be very cold,
it is often inhaled from a balloon.
Nitrites are clear yellow liquids that are inhaled directly from the bottle or from a cloth.
Who uses inhalants?
Most of the people who use solvents and aerosols are young—between 10
and 16 years old. Many try inhalants only once or twice, or use them
only on occasion. But some people use heavily and may continue using
into adulthood. Chronic solvent users are usually in their 20s. Solvent
use is associated with poverty, difficulty at school, lack of
opportunity, problems at home and a high incidence of substance use in
the family. A 2011 survey of Ontario students in grades 7 to 12 reported
that 5.6 per cent had sniffed glue or solvents at least once in the
past year. This same study showed the highest rate of use, 12.2 per
cent, by students in grade 7. A 2004 survey of Canadians (age 15+)
reported that 1.3 per cent had used inhalants at least once in their
Nitrous oxide is a drug of abuse available to many health care workers.
Nitrite use is most common among gay men.
How do inhalants make you feel?
How inhalants, or any drugs, affect you depends on a number of factors:
- your age
- how sensitive you are to the drug
- how much you use
- how long and how often you’ve been using it
- the method you use to take the drug
- the environment you’re in
- whether or not you have certain pre-existing medical or psychiatric conditions
- if you’ve taken any alcohol or other drugs (illicit, prescription, over-the-counter or herbal).
All inhalants are absorbed through the lungs and travel quickly in
the blood to the brain. This produces an immediate and brief
intoxication. Different types of inhalants produce different effects.
Inhaled solvents usually produce an
alcohol-like effect, but with more distortion of perception, such as the
shape, size and colour of objects, and distortion of time and space.
New users may be initially excited, then become drowsy and fall asleep.
People who use solvents more often may feel euphoric, exhilarated and
have vivid fantasies. Some feel giddy, outgoing and confident. Physical
effects may include dizziness, nausea, vomiting, blurred vision,
sneezing and coughing, staggering, slow reflexes and sensitivity to
Nitrous oxide produces a dreamy mental state, loss of motor control, hallucinations and an increased threshold for pain.
Nitrites dilate blood vessels and relax muscles. The heartbeat
quickens and blood rushes to the head, creating a “rush.” Nitrites also
cause headaches, dizziness, nausea and flushing. Some men use nitrites
during sex for the drugs’ capacity to relax muscles and promote blood
How long does the feeling last?
Several breaths of solvents will produce a high within a few minutes
of use. This high may last up to 45 minutes, if no more breaths are
taken. Some people continue to take additional breaths to sustain the
effects for several hours. As the effects wear off, the person may feel
drowsy and have a hangover with a mild-to-severe headache for up to
The effects of nitrous oxide and nitrites are immediate, and wear off within a few minutes.
Are inhalants dangerous?
Yes. Inhalant use is dangerous in many ways. Most inhalants are
highly flammable; recklessness with lit cigarettes and flames while
using inhalants has caused tragic accidents. The different types of
inhalants carry other specific dangers:
Solvents and aerosols
- Suffocation: Solvents are often sniffed from a plastic bag,
which is held firmly around the nose and mouth. People who use solvents
sometimes pass out with the bag still in place, and suffocate due to
lack of oxygen. Choking on vomit when unconscious is also a cause of
- Recklessness: Sniffing reduces inhibition and affects the way people
feel about themselves and the world around them. It makes some people
feel powerful, which has led to dangerous and destructive behaviour that
caused serious harm. Others don’t get “high” when they sniff; they get
depressed. Self-destructive or suicidal behaviour are common among
people who use solvents.
- Sudden sniffing death (SSD): Prolonged sniffing of highly
concentrated inhalants can cause a rapid and irregular heartbeat,
leading to death from heart failure. SSD can occur after only one
sniffing session, and when stress or strenuous exercise follows several
- Serious health problems: People who use solvents regularly for a
long time can damage their liver, kidneys, lungs, heart, brain, bones
and blood. Sometimes this damage heals when drug use is stopped;
sometimes it is permanent.
- Fetal solvent syndrome: Use of solvents during pregnancy, especially
chronic use, can result in premature birth, birth defects or
- Lack of oxygen: Sniffing pure nitrous oxide starves the body of oxygen. Some people have died this way.
- Loss of motor control: People who use nitrous oxide while standing can fall and hurt themselves.
- Frostbite: The gas is extremely cold as it is released from the
cylinder and can freeze skin. In addition, pressure in the tank can
damage the lungs.
- Nerve damage: High levels of nitrous oxide use, even with adequate
oxygen, has been shown to damage nerves. This can cause numbness,
weakness and loss of balance.
- Unsafe sexual practices: An increased risk of contracting HIV and hepatitis is associated with nitrite use.
- Weakened immune system: Recent animal research shows that nitrites
may impair the immune system that protects against infectious diseases.
Are inhalants addictive?
They can be.
Most inhalant use is experimental and occasional. However, people who
use inhalants regularly can develop tolerance. This means that more and
more of the substance is needed to produce the same effects. Regular
use also leads to a persistent craving for the high, which makes it hard
to stop using. When regular use is stopped, withdrawal symptoms may
include nausea, loss of appetite, tremors, anxiety, depression and
What are the long-term effects of using inhalants?
People who use inhalants over a long time may
have bloodshot eyes, sores on the nose and mouth, nose-bleeds, pale
skin, excessive thirst and weight loss. They may also have trouble
concentrating, remembering and thinking clearly. Other possible effects
include tiredness, depression, irritability, hostility and paranoia. The
long-term effects of inhalants vary depending on which inhalant is
used. Heavy solvent use can result in numbess, weakness, tremors and a
lack of co-ordination in the arms and legs.
Some long-term effects
may go away when people stop using, but others are permanent. When
inhaled, solvents are carried by the blood and stored in fat tissue in
the body. Internal organs that have high blood circulation and that are
rich in fat tissue, such as the brain, liver and kidney, are
particularly affected. If inhalant use is stopped, damage to the liver
and kidneys may heal, but damage to the brain is almost always
permanent. Studies using scans of people’s brains after chronic
long-term solvent use show that solvent use can cause the brain to
atrophy, or shrink, which can severely affect thinking, memory and
movement control. Long-term use of solvents such as toluene or
naphthalene has also been shown to damage nerve fibres in the brain
resulting in a neurological condition similar to multiple sclerosis.
Inhalant use can also result in permanent hearing loss and damage to bone marrow.
Copyright (c) 2003, 2013 Centre for Addiction and Mental Health
Where can I find help, treatment and support for using inhalants?
Treatment and support are available for people living with drug use problems and addictions:
Treatment from CAMH
Help for Families from CAMH
Ontario Drug and Alcohol Helpline (open 24/7 for treatment anywhere in Ontario)
Kids Help Phone at 1 800 668-6868
Where can I find more resources from CAMH related to inhalants?
Addictions 101 (online tutorial) Please Note:Your pop-up blocker must be turned off to view this tutorial
Addiction: An Information Guide (PDF)