NIDA for Teens: The Science Behind Drug Abuse
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Inhalants

What Are the Other Effects of Inhalants?

Regular use of inhalants can cause serious harm to vital organs and systems besides the brain. Inhalants can cause:

  • Heart damage
  • Liver failure
  • Muscle weakness
  • Aplastic anemia—the body produces fewer blood cells
  • Nerve damage, which can lead to chronic pain

Damage to these organs is not reversible even when the person stops abusing inhalants.

Effects of Specific Chemicals

Depending on the type of inhalant used, the harmful health effects will differ. The table below lists a few examples.

Inhalant Examples Effects
Amyl nitrite, butyl nitrite Poppers, video head cleaner
  • Sudden sniffing death
  • Weakened immune system
  • Damage to red blood cells (interfering with oxygen supply to vital tissues)
Benzene Gasoline
  • Bone marrow damage
  • Weakened immune system
  • Increased risk of leukemia (a form of cancer)
  • Reproductive system complications
Butane, propane Lighter fluid, hair and pain strays
  • Sudden sniffing death from heart effects
  • Serious burn injuries
Freon (difluoroethane substitutes) Refrigerant and aerosol propellant
  • Sudden sniffing death
  • Breathing problems and death (from sudden cooling of airways)
  • Liver damage
Methylene chloride

Paint thinners and removers, degreasers

  • Poor ability of blood to carry oxygen to the brain and body
  • Changes to heart muscle and heartbeat
Nitrous oxide, hexane

“Laughing gas”

  • Death from lack of oxygen to the brain
  • Altered perception and motor coordination
  • Loss of sensation
  • Spasms
  • Blackouts caused by blood pressure changes
  • Depression of heart muscle functioning
Toluene Gasoline, paint thinners and removers, correction fluid
  • Brain damage (loss of brain tissue mass, impaired thinking, loss of coordination, limb spasms, hearing and vision loss)
  • Liver and kidney damage
Tricholoroethylene

Spot removers, degreasers

  • Sudden sniffing death
  • Liver disease
  • Reproductive problems
  • Hearing and vision loss

Butane gas, found in cigarette lighters and refills, makes the heart extra sensitive to a chemical naturally found in the body that carries messages from the central nervous system to the heart. This chemical, noradrenaline, tells the heart to beat faster when someone is stressed. If the heart becomes too sensitive to noradrenaline, it can affect the heart's rhythm, which can cause death.

Nitrite use has other health risks. Unlike most other inhalants, which act directly on the brain, nitrites make blood vessels bigger, allowing more blood to flow through them. Inhaled nitrites make the heart beat faster and produce a sensation of heat and excitement that can last for several minutes. Nitrites can also cause dizziness and headaches. Nitrites are associated with unsafe sexual practices that can increase the risk for getting and spreading diseases such as HIV and hepatitis.

Signs of Inhalant Use

Sometimes you can see signs that tell you a person is abusing inhalants, such as:

  • Chemical odors on breath or clothing
  • Paint or other stains on the face, hands, or clothing
  • Hidden empty spray paint or solvent containers, or rags or clothing soaked with chemicals
  • Drunk or disoriented actions
  • Slurred speech
  • Nausea (feeling sick) or loss of appetite and weight loss
  • Confusion, inattentiveness, lack of coordination, irritability, and depression