What is Inhalant Addiction?
Inhalants are not a single specific drug but rather a group of chemical agents whose vapors produce an intoxicating effect when they’re inhaled, also called huffing. The chemicals used as inhalants are often typical household or industrial products that are legal and have legitimate uses beyond their abuse as intoxicants.
Substances commonly used as inhalants include:
- Spray paints
- Shoe polishes
- Cooking sprays
- Bottled propane
- Butane lighter fluid
- Whipped cream aerosols
- Nail polish remover
- Paint thinners
- Solvents such as benzene or tolulene
Symptoms of Inhalant Abuse and Addiction
The intoxication caused by most inhalants is similar to alcohol intoxication. Users typically feel euphoria or feelings of dizziness that may be interpreted as pleasant. The vapors often cause unpleasant effects, however, even in the short-term and with limited use. These effects can include:
- Loss of coordination
- Diminished reflexes
- Confusion or disorientation
- Slurred speech
- Blurred vision
- Muscle weakness or tremors
- Nausea and vomiting
Even a single inhalant intoxication episode can be dangerous, resulting in chemical burns, brain damage, coma, or death.
The intoxicating effects are usually fleeting, driving some users to abuse the substances frequently. Long-term abuse can lead to lasting neurological damage that can cause a range of physical and cognitive problems, including:
- Memory impairment
- Mental processing-speed impairment
- Muscle weakness
- Loss of coordination
- Parkinson’s-like tremors and loss of muscle control
- Organ damage (heat, lungs, liver, kidney)
Different inhalant substances produce various health risks, both short-term and long-term. Some of these effects from huffing may be reversible over time. Others may be permanent.
What Causes Inhalant Addiction?
Most young people who begin abusing inhalants report that peer pressure was the primary factor that drove them to try huffing for the first time. Once the use of the substance begins, it’s relatively easy for the user to continue to abuse inhalants. Unlike most illicit drugs, inhalants are generally legal, easy to obtain, and relatively inexpensive.
Continued use of inhalants can lead to dependence and addiction. Physical dependence occurs when the inhalant causes changes in the user’s brain chemistry; these changes produce withdrawal symptoms when the user stops using the inhalant. Some substances also cause the user to build a tolerance to their effect, causing the need for increased use to produce the pleasant effects of intoxication. Toluene, for example, has been shown to produce tolerance within three months of consistent use.
Is Inhalant Addiction Hereditary?
Peer pressure and other external factors are among the most significant reasons young people begin experimenting with inhalants. These factors are mostly a product of the environment and don’t necessarily coincide with a family history of substance abuse. However, studies have shown that family history does play a role in an increased risk of substance abuse and susceptibility to addictive behavior.
Some of the correlations between family history and inhalant abuse may be environmental. Young people who grow up in a home context in which substance abuse is the norm are more likely to abuse substances themselves. Studies have suggested a genetic predisposition toward dependence, however. This increased risk of addiction seems to be inherited.
Inhalant abusers also often come from families where deeper psychological tendencies such as impulsivity, risk-taking, and rule-breaking behavior are prevalent.
How is Inhalant Addiction Detected?
Inhalant abuse often goes undetected. The abused substances are often everyday household products, so their presence in the home is not unusual. The process of using the inhalants, too, is quick and relatively unobtrusive, so users can usually effectively hide their behavior. The effects of intoxication are also brief, so changes in behavior can be challenging to spot.
Warning signs of possible inhalant abuse include:
- Runny nose
- Red eyes
- Chemical burns around the nose and/or mouth
- Unexplained chemical odors
- Chemical stains on clothing or the user’s face
- Slurred speech, lethargy, or signs of alcohol-like intoxication
How is Inhalant Addiction Diagnosed?
Inhalant abuse is difficult for healthcare providers to detect. No laboratory tests or exams can detect the presence of chemicals in the body. If the user does not admit to using inhalants, abuse or dependence is not easy to prove. Practitioners will gather a health and family history and usually rely on reasonable suspicion to conclude that inhalant abuse is the problem.
When the likelihood of inhalant use is established, dependence on the substances may be formally diagnosed as “inhalant use disorder.” To be diagnosed, the inhalant use must cause significant impairment or distress, and at least two of the following symptoms must be present over a 12-month period:
- Inhalant use is greater than the user intends, either in dosage or frequency.
- The user has a desire to quit or has unsuccessfully tried to stop using inhalants.
- The user spends significant time acquiring, using, or recovering from the inhalants.
- The user has an intense craving for inhalants.
- Inhalant use is interfering with the user’s obligations or responsibilities.
- Inhalant use continues despite the harm it does to the user, physically or otherwise.
- Inhalant use interferes with the user’s everyday activities and routines.
- Inhalants are used in dangerous situations.
- Tolerance for the inhalant develops, creating the need for higher doses or more frequent use to achieve the same effect.
- Abstinence from the inhalant causes withdrawal symptoms.
How is Inhalant Addiction Treated?
There are currently no medications that are known to treat inhalant use disorder effectively. Instead, treatment programs usually involve psychotherapy, group therapies, and support programs to assist in recovery.
Treatment approaches for inhalant dependence may include:
- Detoxification. Treatment centers will often require users to undergo a detox period to remove the inhalant chemicals from their bodies. During this detox period, some users may experience withdrawal symptoms, including anxiety, depression, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, and irritability.
- Physical assessment. Because inhalants can cause severe and potentially life-threatening health problems, exams should be conducted to look for evidence of underlying physical conditions.
- Psychological assessment. Inhalant abuse often goes hand in hand with the abuse of other substances. Mental health issues such as major depression or anxiety disorders are often present, as well. These problems should be treated alongside treatment for inhalant abuse.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). This type of psychotherapy helps inhalant users to recognize the triggers that prompt their substance abuse. The therapy also focuses on developing strategies and techniques for dealing with those triggers when they occur. CBT can be effective at preventing relapses once the patient has begun to abstain from drug use.
How Does Inhalant Addiction Progress?
Long-term inhalant use can have severe, permanent, and sometimes fatal impacts on the user’s body. Effects can include:
- Brain damage that produces tremors, slurred speech, deafness, vision impairment, and other neurological, cognitive, and psychological dysfunction
- Emphysema-like lung impairment
- Heart failure
- Hepatitis and kidney failure
- HIV-like immune-system impairment
- Preeclampsia or miscarriage in pregnant women
How Is Inhalant Addiction Prevented?
Education about the dangers of inhalant use is essential because many young people do not fully understand the risks associated with the substances. Inhalants are less likely to produce dependence than some other drugs, leading young people to incorrectly assume that limited use is not as risky as other drugs.
Drug abuse prevention programs can be effective when they target drug education at at-risk groups. Because inhalants are often abused in conjunction with other drugs and substances, it is essential to address all forms of substance abuse in the prevention program.
Inhalant Addiction Caregiver Tips
Inhalant abuse is a problem that disproportionately affects young people, so the responsibility of caring for users typically falls to their parents and guardians. Inhalant use is insidious and notoriously difficult to prevent, making it difficult for parents to keep their children safe.
To reduce your child’s risk of being harmed by inhalant use, keep these tips in mind:
- Educate your children. Children often think that because inhalants are legal, everyday household products, they are not especially dangerous. Make sure that your children know the extreme dangers associated with inhalant use. Also, be sure that they understand that even infrequent, casual use of the substances can have life-threatening consequences.
- Don’t give your children a partial education. Young people who abuse inhalants very often abuse other drugs and substances, as well. When you teach your children about the dangers of drug abuse, be sure to emphasize that inhalant abuse is a substance use disorder like any other.
- Be alert to the dangers. Know which products and chemicals can be used as inhalants, and keep track of them when they’re in your home. Look for the presence of suspicious products that you didn’t buy, and be watchful for the warning signs of inhalant use in your child.
Most people with inhalant addiction also suffer from other brain and mental health-related issues, a situation called co-morbidity. Here are a few of the disorders commonly associated with inhalant addiction:
Inhalant Addiction Brain Science
In the brain, the chemicals found in many inhalants attack and damage the protective layer surrounding nerve cells. The substances concentrate in the brain’s cells. Over time, exposure to the chemicals can kill the cells, resulting in the loss of healthy brain tissue or the development of significantly damaged tissue areas. This damage, in turn, causes the neurological and psychological problems associated with inhalant abuse.
Inhalant Addiction Research
Title: Recovery Management Checkups for Primary Care Experiment (RMC-PC)
Contact: Christy K Scott, PhD
Chestnut Health Systems
National data show that only 8% of people with past-year substance use disorders (SUD) received any treatment for these disorders in the past year, resulting in high costs, both in terms of their own health and functioning and costs to society. Pilot work demonstrates that the proposed intervention can significantly increase SUD treatment engagement among patients with SUD within Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) and thereby reduce substance use and other related consequences. This project is being done in close collaboration with several FQHC providers to facilitate the potential for subsequent dissemination to other FQHCs and primary care settings.
Title: Treatment With Quetiapine for Youth With Substance Use Disorders and Severe Mood Dysregulation
Study Chair: Amy Yule, MD
Massachusetts General Hospital
The purpose of this study is to determine whether quetiapine is effective in the treatment of youth with co-occurring substance use disorders and severe mood dysregulation.
Title: Enhancing Adolescent Substance Abuse Treatment
Contact: Michael McCart, PhD
Adolescent and Family Clinic, OSLC Developments, Inc.
Adolescents with substance use disorders (SUD) are at high risk for significant deleterious outcomes. Although several evidence-based practices for adolescent SUD exist, they yield only small to medium effects that rapidly diminish (30-70% 6-month relapse rates). A promising approach for determining how to enhance treatment is experimental mediation research. In contrast to traditional correlational mediation approaches, experimental mediation permits causal inference and is comprised of key steps: (A) Identify the putative mediating variable for a treatment. (B) Enhance the treatment to target that mediator more intensely. (C) Randomize youth to conditions, with the standard and enhanced versions of the therapy targeting different “levels” of the same mediator. (D) Measure the mediator and outcomes longitudinally. (E) Perform modern mediation analyses, coupled with analyses evaluating causal inference, to determine if changes in the mediator are responsible for differences in outcomes.