Inhalants refer to a broad range of chemicals, either household or industrial, that can be breathed into the mouth or nose in order to produce intoxication. This is in direct contrast to the product’s intended purpose. The inhalation at room temperature induces a process called volatilization, such as with gasoline or acetone, or from a pressurized container, such as nitrous oxide or butane.[i]
All inhalant use is illicit or illegal
It’s easy to think that that all inhalants are similar and it is illegal to use them for intoxication. However, there are actually three types of inhalant categories: solvents, gases and medical drugs. While most solvents and gases are legal, 38 of the states in the United States have enacted laws to make inhalant use illegal or make it illegal to provide them to individuals under the age of 18. Furthermore, the third category, medical drugs, is usually legal when administered under the direction of a qualified medical professional. When they are used outside of a medical setting or with no medical purpose (recreationally), this activity would still be illegal. Examples of these types of inhalants would include diethyl ether or nitrous oxide, which is used by dentists and produces an intoxicating effect similar to alcohol.[ii]
All inhalants are the same
There is an incredibly diverse amount of products that can be used as an inhalant. In addition to the medical ones, there are solvents and gases. Those that would be considered solvents would include chemicals such as petroleum products (gasoline, kerosene), those containing toluene (paint thinner, contact cement, model glue), and acetone (nail polish remover). These types of solvents typically vaporize at room temperature. Another type, ethanol, is a chemical that can be drank, but can also be inhaled but in order for that to be possible, it must be converted to a gas or aerosol using a nebulizer. The sale of nebulizers for this use has been banned in some states.[iii]
The other type of inhalants are gases. This would include chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) used in aerosol sprays or propellants such as hair spray and deodorant. Whipped cream cans also contain nitrous oxide that can be used recreationally. This is also true of pressurized canisters of propane and butane.[iv]
Inhalants are difficult to find
When considering inhalants such as the nitrous oxide tanks used at the dentist’s office, they are indeed difficult to find. However, this same gas can be purchased at virtually any grocery store in the form of a can of whipped cream. Further, other chemicals that are used as inhalants can be widely found. Gasoline is available at any gas station and things like paint thinner, contact cement and model glue can be found at any hardware store. Nail polish remover and butane (lighter fluid) can be found at any big box store. Other inhalants such as computer cleaning sprays and cans of cooking oil are very easy to find.
Inhalants are quick acting, so there is no time to cause damage to one’s body
Inhalants enter the blood and are rapidly absorbed by capillaries in the lungs, and one of the traits of sniffing inhalants is that the intoxicating effects usually wear off after only minutes. This leads to the idea that they cannot cause much harm in that amount of time. However, there is actually a very wide range of health problems that can be associated with inhalant use. However, other health problems can be much more severe and would include hearing loss, limb spasms, damage to the nervous system or brain, liver and kidney damage, Parkinsonism, and even death. Death from inhalant use can occur due to hypoxia, or lack of oxygen, but it can also occur due to aspiration of vomit or as a contributor to a heart attack or stroke. When inhalants are used during pregnancy, the baby may be premature and may need additional health care similar to what might be seen with fetal alcohol syndrome.[v]
In addition to all of these increased health risks due to inhalant use, there are additional risks that are specific to types of chemicals. If the active agent is methylene chloride, there is a risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. With gasoline, lead poisoning is possible when it is leaded. The use of butane, propane and nitrous oxide can cause freezing burns, and benzene can cause bone marrow depression causing it to be labeled as a known carcinogen. Butane is one of the more commonly used inhalants and it can cause drowsiness, narcosis, asphyxia or even what is known as “sudden sniffing death.” This occurs when the inhalant causes a sudden surge of adrenaline similar to what might be induced in a very frightening situation, and this can cause a fatal cardiac arrhythmia.[vi]
All inhalants have the same intoxicating effects
The common effect of inhalant use is intoxication although this feeling can vary depending upon the agent used. These effects range from mild inebriation similar to what might be felt when a small amount of alcohol is consumed when there would be loss of coordination and impaired judgement, to distortions in time and space, hallucinations and emotional disturbances. In the short term, some of the other intoxicating effects that might be associated with inhalant use would include headaches, nausea and vomiting, slurred speech. Regular use of some solvents can lead to what is called a “glue sniffer’s rash” around the nose and mouth.[vii]
All inhalants will affect individuals in the same manner
Due to the fact that there is such a wide range of chemicals that can be used for inhalant use, as well as the different ways in which these chemicals are synthesized in different bodies, there is also a wide arrange of effects. One chemical might only inspire a mild reaction in one person, but potentially cause medical issues as severe as death in others.
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