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Inhalants: Basic information to unasked questions

Posted: April 27th, 2010 | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

This month, the Chicago Tribune published a tragic story of a life cut short by inhalant abuse.  Inhalants are one of the most commonly used methods to get high among young adolescents.  The Monitoring the Future surveys show that in 2009, 15% of eighth graders had abused inhalants in their lifetimes.

What are inhalants?

  • Commonly abused inhalants can be broken down into 3 major categories:
  • Hydocarbons:  There are two major categories
    • Solvents:  Abused solvents are typically hydrocarbon liquids that evaporate into gas or fumes easily.  Examples include: gasoline, paint stripper, dry cleaning fluids, zippo lighter fluid, varnish remover, and other such products.
    • Gas:  Abused products include propane, freon, butane or other such products.  The propellant in air fresheners, computer dust cleaners, spray paint and other similar products is frequently a hydrocarbon gas.
  • Nitrous oxide:  Often referred to as laughing gas, it is the gas found in Redi-Whip and whipped cream cartridges sold in stores.  Kits are available to ‘crack’ the readily available cartridges into a balloon for easily inhaling.
  • Nitrites:  Commonly used to enhance sexual pleasure as well as abused by teens.

Why are inhalants abused by younger teens?

  • Easy Access
    • Common, easily available household products
    • Legally purchased with no restriction to access (e.g., whipped cream cans or cartridges to make whipped cream, air-fresheners, cigarette lighters, model glue)
    • Low cost or free if taken from home
  • Getting high on inhalants is a social activity
    • Immediate effects, works immediately unlike a pill
    • High lasts a short time, 5-10 minutes, which can coincide with breaks between class, bathroom use, school bus trips
  • Easy to conceal use
    • No paraphernalia of needles, pipes, bongs.  Plastic bags, rags, socks and balloons may not be easily recognized as the tools used in this class of abused substances.
    • No readily available confirmatory drug test is available for these substances.

 What are the methods of abuse? (click on hyperlinks for images)

What are some of the medical complications of inhalant abuse?

  • Nitrates: 
    • pounding headache
    •  flushed skin
    • Methemoglobinemia which is a change in the configuration of hemoglobin so it does not carry oxygen as well.
  • Nitrous Oxide:
    • Respiratory irritation
    • Asphyxiation possible with a very high percentage of inhalant
    • Headache, coma, seizures and death
    • Chronic abuse can lead to Vitamin B-12 deficiency which leads to nerve damage, muscle weakness, loss of balance and anemia.
  • Hydrocarbons:
    • Sudden sniffing death syndrome:  the heart is sensitized to epinephrine and the epinephrine in our body causes the heart to beat abnormally and no longer function correctly
    • Shortness of breath and wheezing, especially if other noxious particles are inhaled.
    • Skin rash around the hand and face
    • Liver damage, especially with fluorinated hydrocarbons (found in dry cleaning fluid and computer dust cleaners)
    • Renal damage:  seen most often with the toluene containing solvents (strippers, spray paint, etc)
    • Chronic use can lead to nerve and brain damage, especially in the areas that control movement in the body.  This damage can be permanent.

 What are some signs of potential inhalant abuse?

  • Rags, bags, bandanas or empty cans in room, locker or other personal areas
  • Paint stains on hands, face or clothing
  • Rash or blisters in face or mouth/lips/nose without an explanation
    • Inhalants can be very irritating and drying to the skin
  • Frostbite to the face and hands as direct inhalation from a canister can be very cold (for example inhaling Freon)
  • Psychosocial indicators:  inattentiveness, lack of coordination, irritability, depression

 This blog is a bit different than our previous ones, but there is nothing entertaining about the death of a child.  You can find more information on inhalants at:

 If you have any questions, please feel free to call the Illinois Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222 or leave a question in the comment section below or on Facebook.

 Until next Tuesday,


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