Most inhalants are common household products that give off mind-altering chemical fumes when sniffed. These common products include paint thinner, fingernail polish remover, glues, gasoline, cigarette lighter fluid, and nitrous oxide. They also include fluorinated hydrocarbons found in aerosols, such as whipped cream, hair and paint sprays, and computer cleaners. The chemical structure of the various types of inhalants is diverse, making it difficult to generalize about the effects of inhalants. It is known, however, that the vaporous fumes can change brain chemistry and may be permanently damaging to the brain and central nervous system.
Inhalant users are also at risk for Sudden Sniffing Death (SSD), which can occur when the inhaled fumes take the place of oxygen in the lungs and central nervous system. This basically causes the inhalant user to suffocate. Inhalants can also lead to death by disrupting the normal heart rhythm, which can lead to cardiac arrest. Use of inhalants can cause hepatitis, liver failure, and muscle weakness. Certain inhalants can also cause the body to produce fewer of all types of blood cells, which may result in life-threatening aplastic anemia.
Inhalants also alter the functioning of the nervous system. Some of these effects are transient and disappear after use is discontinued. But inhalant use can also lead to serious neurological problems, some of which are irreversible. For example, frequent longterm use of certain inhalants can cause a permanent change or malfunction of nerves in the back and legs, called polyneuropathy. Inhalants can also act directly in the brain to cause a variety of neurological problems. For instance, inhalants can cause abnormalities in brain areas that are involved in movement (for example, the cerebellum) and higher cognitive function (for example, the cerebral cortex).