Muir Wood Teen
Muir Wood Adolescent and Family Services is a Joint Commission-accredited mental health and substance use disorder treatment provider located in Petaluma, California. We provide integrated evidence-based care including psychiatry, psychotherapy, experiential therapy, wellness services, and milieu therapy for adolescents and teens, and their family members.

Inhalant Abuse

Inhalant Abuse: The Legal High With Permanent Consequences

While many drugs of abuse could cause death if they’re used repeatedly at very high doses, inhalants are one of the only classes of drug that could kill on the very first attempt, even if the dose seems low.

Solvents, paint and fuels are designed to make life easier, and it’s likely that every home in America has at least one of these products hiding underneath the kitchen sink or on a tall shelf in the garage. Industrious teens might seek these solvents out for a quick high, sniffing and snorting the solvents and their toxic vapors. This is known as inhalant abuse, and while the National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that peak use of these drugs occurred in the middle of the 1990s, it’s still a serious problem that merits concern. While many drugs of abuse could cause death if they’re used repeatedly at very high doses, inhalants are one of the only classes of drug that could kill on the very first attempt, even if the dose seems low.

Understanding Inhalation

Pumping gas isn’t fun, especially as fuel prices in the United States continue to climb. But parents who pay attention at the pump may learn a little more about inhalant abuse. As gasoline moves from the nozzle into the car, tiny particles of fuel react with the oxygen in the air, releasing intoxicating vapors. Lightheadedness is common when people breathe in these vapors, and as a result, most parents prefer to look away or go inside while the gas flows freely. However, hovering near the car could make that giddy feeling increase. This is the sensation teens seek when they’re abusing inhalants. It’s similar to the intoxication teens would feel if they drank alcohol, but teens might find it much easier to obtain inhalants.

Anything that releases vapors could be considered an inhalant, but teens often use very specific products in their quest to get high.

Favorites include:

    • Glue and rubber cement
    • Gasoline
    • Nail polish remover
    • Shoe polish
    • Aerosol products, including whipped cream and cooking spray
    • Paint and paint thinner
    • Correction fluid

The Mayo Clinic reports that the euphoria associated with taking these products lasts between 15 and 30 minutes. In order to make the sensation last, some teens take in repeat dosages in one short binge, overloading their brains with these intensely strong chemicals. Some teens sniff these inhalants directly, holding their noses over the products while they breathe deeply. Other teens spray the inhalants inside a paper or plastic bag and then inhale the trapped air inside the bag that’s laden with vapors. Still others place the products on a rag or on their clothes, and then place their noses close to the soaked fabrics to take in the inhalants.

Consequences of Inhalants

While inhalants seem to be working only on the teen’s sense of perception, bringing about a feeling of euphoria, the drugs are also quite effective at changing the action of the rest of the body. The teen’s heart may begin to race, going faster and faster until it gives out under the pressure. Teens may also develop central nervous system problems, spasms in the limbs, brain damage and hearing loss. These problems could occur in people who abuse the drugs regularly, but they’ve also been seen in teens who take the drugs just once.

There are no specific treatments that can be given to people who are intoxicated by inhalants, according to an article in the journal American Family Physician. Whereas teens who are intoxicated with heroin, for example, can go to the hospital and access specific drugs that are designed to render that heroin inert, there are no such drugs that have been designed for inhalants. Similarly, there are no laboratory tests that can confirm that a person’s been taking inhalants.

Where drugs tests might easily be used to identify other drugs of abuse, inhalants can be hard for experts to detect. Teens who go to the hospital due to inhalant intoxication can spend precious minutes waiting, as their doctors try to determine what might be bothering them.

Teens who elude detection may have even more serious problems, as they may move from taking inhalants into taking other drugs. In a study in the journal Addictive Behaviors, researchers found that teens who abused inhalants had a greater risk of injecting drugs later in life, when compared to teens who didn’t abuse inhalants. It’s not clear why this association exists, but it is clear that teens who abuse inhalants could be taking intense risks early in life and this could make them more likely to abuse hard drugs down the line. In essence, the inhalants work like gateway drugs.

In a study of the issue, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, researchers found that teens who abused inhalants were more likely to have major depression and suicide attempts, when compared to teens who did not abuse inhalants. The teens in this study used multiple drugs, in addition to inhalants, so it’s possible the interaction of drugs was responsible for their depressive symptoms, but it’s also possible that the inhalant abuse caused specific types of brain damage that led to symptoms of depression and mental illness.

Warning Signs

Some signals of inhalant abuse are easy to spot. Teens might appear at the dinner table with dots of paint on their noses or smudges of ink under their noses, for example, or a teen might smell like gasoline or other chemicals for no explainable reason whatsoever.

There are other signs that parents might be more apt to ignore, including:

  • Red or runny eyes
  • Frequent sniffling
  • Sores around the mouth
  • Frequent complaints of nausea or headaches

Inhalant abusers might also hoard their chemicals in their rooms, stashing away paint, gas or glue in their closets or underneath their beds for easy access. Teens who have no interest in crafts, woodworking or other solvent-based hobbies should have no reason for these products, unless they’re planning to abuse them.

Some teens may use inhalants socially, and they may dash to the garage or kitchen when their friends arrive. Other teens consider their inhalant abuse to be a private pleasure, and these teens may demand time alone and become irritable when they’re asked to explain what they’re doing behind closed doors. Teens in either group can become addicted to inhalants, but according to a study in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, weekly inhalant use is most often related to addiction, along with the use of multiple inhalants and early age at first use. Teens who develop addictions are unable to control their inhalant abuse, and these teens may become more cavalier about their drug use, leaving products out in the open and interacting with the family while intoxicated on the drugs.

What to Do

It’s nearly impossible to remove all inhalant substances from a modern household. These are products most families use on a daily basis, and grabbing a lock in order to handle life’s chores seems unreasonable to almost anyone. Instead, it’s best to talk with teens about inhalants and remind them that these drugs can kill. Teens might not know that this is the case, and they might be surprised to learn that their parents are even aware of their drug use. Teens who admit to inhalant abuse and who also admit that they can’t stop abusing the drugs should be admitted to counseling programs. Here, they can get help with the mental illnesses that might be forming due to the drug abuse, and they can learn how to keep addictive tendencies at bay. If you need a program like this for your son, please contact us at Muir Wood. We have counselors available by phone, or you can download our admissions packet for more information on how our treatment programs work.


Further Reading