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 young adults.
There are hundreds of different kinds of inhalants, roughly dividing into four different types:
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.
Solvent and aerosol products—on the store shelf, in the kitchen cupboard or in the workshop—would not be noticed by most people as dangerous drugs.
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.
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 lifetime.
Nitrous oxide is a drug of abuse available to many health care workers.
Nitrite use is most common among gay men.
How inhalants, or any drugs, affect you depends on a number of factors:
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 light.
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 flow.
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 several days.
The effects of nitrous oxide and nitrites are immediate and wear off within a few minutes.
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 paranoia.
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
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
Even in difficult times, we see so much kindness and generosity in the CAMH community! Listen to a shared moment of gratitude as we reflect on what donors have helped make possible over the last year.
Keep your finger on our pulse – latest CAMH news, discoveries and ways to get involved delivered to your inbox.
Please select a newsletter
Please complete the following:
We look forward to keeping you informed, inspired and involved in all things CAMH.
Your donation will give researchers more time to make breakthroughs, patients more time to heal, and families more time together. Together, we can prevent suicide.