NIDA for Teens: The Science Behind Drug Abuse
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  • Changes in the Brain

    Damage from long term use of inhalants can slow or stop nerve cell activity in some parts of the brain.

    This might happen in the frontal cortex, the part of the brain that solves complex problems and plans ahead. Or if inhalants get into the brain's cerebellum, which controls movement and coordination, they can make someone move slowly or clumsily.

    Studies show that neurons in a part of the brain called the hippocampus can also be damaged by inhalants. The damage occurs because the cells don't get enough oxygen.

    Since the hippocampus helps control memory, someone who repeatedly uses inhalants may lose the ability to learn new things, may not recognize familiar things, or may have a hard time keeping track of simple conversations.

  • No desaparecen cuando exhalas

    Un spray inhalante degrada la mielina

    Los vapores de los inhalantes frecuentemente contienen más de una sustancia química. Algunas abandonan el cuerpo rápidamente, pero otras son absorbidas por los tejidos grasos en el cerebro y en el sistema nervioso, donde pueden permanecer por mucho tiempo.

    Uno de estos tejidos grasos es la mielina, una capa protectora que rodea muchas de las células nerviosas (neuronas) del cuerpo. Las células nerviosas en el cerebro y en la médula espinal son como el “centro de comando” de tu cuerpo. Ellas envían y reciben mensajes que controlan casi todo lo que piensas y haces.

    Si te puedes imaginar a las células nerviosas como si fueran la instalación eléctrica de tu cuerpo, entonces imagínate a la mielina como el aislante de caucho que protege un cable eléctrico.

    Un problema con el uso de inhalantes por largo tiempo es que las sustancias químicas pueden degradar la mielina. Si esto ocurre, es posible que las células nerviosas ya no logren transmitir mensajes.

  • Can You Fill the Gaps?

    Sometimes, nerve cells that are damaged by inhalants may be able to repair themselves. The empty spaces in the following brain-related words represent damaged neurons. See if you can "repair" them by filling in the blanks to complete the words. (Hint: All the words are in the inhalant series pages.)

    1. M _ _ L _ _
    2. _ _ U _ O _
    3. _ _ P P _ _ _ M _ _ S


    1. M Y E L I N
    2. N E U R O N
    3. H I P PO C A M P U S
  • Cambios en el cerebro

    Los efectos de los inhalantes

    Los daños que resultan del uso de inhalantes por largo tiempo pueden disminuir o detener la actividad de las células nerviosas en algunas partes del cerebro.

    Esto puede pasar en la corteza frontal, que es la parte del cerebro que resuelve problemas complejos y planifica el futuro. Mientras tanto, si los inhalantes logran entrar en el cerebelo, que es la parte del cerebro que controla los movimientos y la coordinación, pueden hacer que el usuario se mueva torpemente o con lentitud.

    Los estudios demuestran que los inhalantes también pueden dañar a las neuronas en una parte del cerebro conocida como el hipocampo. El daño ocurre porque las células no reciben suficiente oxígeno.

    Ya que el hipocampo ayuda a controlar la memoria, es posible que las personas que usan inhalantes repetidamente pierdan la habilidad para aprender cosas nuevas, no reconozcan cosas familiares, o tengan dificultad en seguir una simple conversación.

  • The Search Continues

    The truth is, there’s still a whole lot that scientists do not know about the effects of inhalants on the brain.

    When scientists learn more about how various inhalants affect the brain, they may be able to develop treatments that prevent the damage inhalants can cause. Maybe someday you’ll make the next major breakthrough.

    Until then, follow me—Sara Bellum—through many other magazines in my series. We'll explore how drugs can affect the brain and also the nervous system.

    Mind Over Matter is produced by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institutes of Health. These materials are in the public domain and may be reproduced without permission. Citation of the source is appreciated. NIH Publication No.03-4038. Printed 1997, Reprinted 1998, 2000, 2003.

  • ¿Puedes completar los espacios en blanco?

    Diversos inhalantes de uso diario

    A veces es posible que las células nerviosas dañadas por los inhalantes puedan repararse por sí solas. Los espacios en blanco de las siguientes palabras relacionadas con el cerebro representan las neuronas dañadas. Ve si puedes “repararlas” llenando los espacios vacíos para completar las palabras. (Una pista: todas las palabras se pueden encontrar en las páginas de este ejemplar de mi serie).

    1. M _ _ L _ _ _
    2. _ _ U _O _ _
    3. _ _ P _ _ _ M_ _


    1. M I E L I N A
    2. N E U R O N A
    3. H I P O C A M P A
  • Inhalants

    For teachers: Background information and classroom activities for use with the Inhalants Student Booklet.

    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).

  • La búsqueda continúa


    La verdad es que todavía hay mucho que los científicos no saben sobre los efectos de los inhalantes sobre el cerebro.

    Quizás, cuando los científicos hayan aprendido más sobre cómo los diferentes inhalantes afectan el cerebro, puedan desarrollar tratamientos que prevengan el daño que éstos pueden causar. Tal vez algún día tú serás quien logre el próximo gran descubrimiento.

    Hasta entonces, acompáñame en otros boletines informativos de mi serie, en los que exploraremos cómo las drogas pueden afectar al cerebro y al sistema nervioso.

    Explorando la Mente es una serie producida por el Instituto Nacional sobre el Abuso de Drogas (NIDA, por sus siglas en inglés), parte de los Institutos Nacionales de la Salud. Estos materiales son del dominio público y se pueden reproducir sin permiso. Se agradece citar la fuente.
    Publicación NIH No. 06-4038 (s). Impresa en el 2006.

    Instituto Nacional sobre el Abuso de Drogas
    Institutos Nacionales de la Salud
    Departamento de Salud y Servicios Humanos de los EE.UU.

  • Mechanism of Action

    Mechanism of Action

    Inhalants enter the bloodstream quickly and are then distributed throughout the brain and body. They have direct effects on both the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) and the peripheral nervous system (nerves throughout the body).

    Using brain imaging techniques, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), researchers have discovered that there are marked structural changes in the brains of chronic inhalant abusers. These changes include a reduction in size in certain brain areas, including the cerebral cortex, cerebellum, and brainstem. These changes may account for some of the neurological and behavioral symptoms that long-term inhalant abusers exhibit (for example, cognitive and motor difficulties). Some of these changes may be due to the effect inhalants have on myelin, the fatty tissue which insulates and protects axons and helps speed up nerve conduction. When inhalants enter the brain and body, they are particularly attracted to fatty tissues. Because myelin is a fat, it quickly absorbs inhalants, which can then damage or even destroy the myelin. The deterioration of myelin interferes with the rapid flow of messages from one nerve to another.

    Inhalants can also have a profound effect on nerves that are located throughout the body. The polyneuropathy caused by some inhalants, as well as other neurological problems, may be due in part to the effect of the inhalants on the myelin sheath that covers axons throughout the body. In some cases, not only is the myelin destroyed, but the axons themselves degenerate.

    The following activities, when used along with the magazine on inhalants, will help explain to students how these substances change the brain and the body.

  • Activity One

    Activity One


    The student will learn the effects of inhalant use on brain-behavior relationships.


    Introduce this activity by reminding students that inhalants can slow or stop nerve cell activity in some parts of the brain; for example, the frontal lobes (complex problem solving), cerebellum (movement and coordination), and hippocampus (memory). Students will break into small groups and contribute in a round-robin fashion to a story about a fictional student who uses inhalants. The students should be encouraged to include problems (symptoms) in the description that would be associated with inhalant use, as well as other symptoms that would not. These stories can then be shared (either in oral or written form) with the rest of the class, who will be required to identify the inhalant-related behavioral components and then describe the brain areas that are involved in these behaviors. Students will then search the Internet and other sources to obtain information about the way in which activity in the frontal lobes, cerebellum, and hippocampus influences ehavior, and prepare a report summarizing their findings.

  • Activity Two

    Activity Two


    The student will understand the effect of inhalants on brain structures, physiology, and behavior.


    Review the regions of the brain and structures affected by inhaling solvents, gases, and nitrites. Then divide the class into groups of 4-6, and have each group write a rap music video about the effects of inhalants on brain areas and structures, as well as brain-behavior relationships. When the songs are finished, have each group perform their music video.

  • Activity Three

    Activity Three


    The student will become more familiar with the neuroscience concepts and terminology associated with the effects of inhalants on the brain and body.


    The students will complete the Inhalants Word Search (below), and the teacher will then review the words and have the students discuss how the terms relate to inhalant use. A copy of the Word Search and the Word Search Solution is included in the guide.

    Word Search


    Blank wordsearch


    Wordsearch with answers


  • The Brain's Response to Inhalants

    Hi, my name's Sara Bellum. Welcome to my magazine series exploring the brain's response to drugs. In this issue, we'll investigate the fascinating facts about inhalants. Some of this information was only recently discovered by leading scientists.

    Maybe you haven't heard of inhalants, but you probably come across them pretty often. Hair spray, gasoline, spray paint -- they are all inhalants, and so are lots of other everyday products.

    Many inhalants have a strong smell. That's why they're called inhalants: Some people inhale the vapors on purpose.

    Why would anyone do this? Because the chemicals in these vapors can change the way the brain works, and those changes can make people feel very happy for a short time.

    But inhalants can also do harm.

  • They Don't Go Away When You Exhale

    Inhalant vapors often contain more than one chemical. Some leave the body quickly, but others are absorbed by fatty tissues in the brain and nervous system. They can stay there for a long time.

    One of these fatty tissues is myelin—a protective cover that surrounds many of the body's nerve cells (neurons). Nerve cells in your brain and spinal cord are sort of like "Command Central" for your body. They send and receive messages that control just about everything you think and do.

    If you picture nerve cells as your body's electrical wiring, then think of myelin as the rubber insulation that protects an electrical cord.

    One problem with inhalant use over the long term is that the chemicals can break down myelin. And if myelin breaks down, nerve cells may not be able to transmit messages.

  • La respuesta del cerebro a los inhalantes

    Clara Mente estudia inhalantes en un globo

    Me llamo Clara Mente y quiero darles la bienvenida a mi serie de boletines informativos que exploran la respuesta del cerebro a las drogas. En este ejemplar, investigaremos varios datos fascinantes sobre los inhalantes. Alguna de esta información fue descubierta recientemente por los científicos que lideran la investigación en este campo.

    Tal vez nunca hayas oído hablar de inhalantes, pero seguro que has tenido contacto con ellos con bastante frecuencia. El fijador para el pelo, la gasolina y la pintura en aerosol son todos inhalantes, al igual que muchos otros productos de uso diario.

    Muchos inhalantes tienen un olor fuerte. Algunas personas inhalan los vapores a propósito. Justamente por eso se llaman inhalantes.

    ¿Y por qué haría alguien esto? Porque los químicos en estos vapores pueden cambiar la forma cómo funciona el cerebro, y estos cambios hacen que las personas se sientan contentas por un período corto de tiempo. Pero los inhalantes también pueden causar daño.

  • Beyond the Brain

    One reason scientists are so interested in inhalants is that these chemicals affect the body in lots of ways. While some effects are due to changes in the brain, others are direct actions on other parts of the body, such as the circulatory system.

    Did you know that some inhalants directly increase the size of blood vessels, allowing more blood to flow through? And some inhalants can make the heart beat faster. This can be a serious problem, especially if someone inhales butane gas.

    Butane, found in cigarette lighters and refills, makes the heart extra sensitive to a chemical that carries messages from the nervous system to the heart. This chemical, noradrenalin, tells the heart to beat faster when you're in a stressful situation—like if something suddenly scares you.

    If the heart becomes too sensitive to noradrenalin, a normal jolt of it may cause the heart to temporarily lose its rhythm and stop pumping blood through the body. Some inhalant users die this way. Inhalants can also cause death by suffocation. This occurs when the inhaled fumes take the place of oxygen in the lungs and the brain. This is known as Sudden Sniffing Death.

  • Más allá del cerebro

    Clara Mente buceando en el cuerpo

    Una de las razones por la que los científicos están tan interesados en los inhalantes es porque estas sustancias químicas afectan al cuerpo de muchas maneras. Mientras que algunos de estos efectos se deben a cambios en el cerebro, otros son acciones directas sobre diferentes partes del cuerpo, como el sistema circulatorio.

    ¿Sabías que algunos inhalantes aumentan el tamaño de los vasos sanguíneos, permitiendo que fluya más sangre? Y otros inhalantes pueden hacer que el corazón lata más rápido. Esto puede ser un grave problema, especialmente si alguien inhala gas butano.

    El gas butano es uno de los ingredientes en los encendedores de cigarrillos y en los aerosoles para rellenar los encendedores. Éste hace que el corazón se vuelva más sensible a una sustancia química que lleva mensajes desde el sistema nervioso hasta el corazón. Esta sustancia llamada noradrenalina, le ordena al corazón que lata más rápido cuando te encuentras en una situación estresante, como por ejemplo, cuando algo te asusta de repente.

    Si el corazón se vuelve demasiado sensible a la noradrenalina, una dosis normal de la misma puede hacer que el corazón pierda momentáneamente su ritmo y deje de bombear la sangre por el cuerpo. Y así es como mueren algunas personas que usan inhalantes. Los inhalantes también pueden causar la muerte por asfixia. Esto ocurre cuando los vapores inhalados reemplazan el oxígeno en los pulmones y en el cerebro. Esto se conoce como "muerte súbita por inhalación".

  • What Are Inhalants?

     A hand depressing an aerosol of a spray can

    Also known as: “laughing gas” (nitrous oxide), “snappers” (amyl nitrite), “poppers” (amyl nitrite and butyl nitrite), “whippets” (fluorinated hydrocarbons), “bold” (nitrites), and “rush” (nitrites)

    Inhalants are chemicals found in ordinary household or workplace products that people inhale on purpose to get “high.” Because many inhalants can be found around the house, people often don’t realize that inhaling their fumes, even just once, can be very harmful to the brain and body and can lead to death. In fact, the chemicals found in these products can change the way the brain works and cause other problems in the body.

    Although different inhalants cause different effects, they generally fall into one of four categories.

    Volatile solvents are liquids that become a gas at room temperature. They are found in:

    • Paint thinner, nail polish remover, degreaser, dry-cleaning fluid, gasoline, and contact cement
    • Some art or office supplies, such as correction fluid, felt-tip marker fluid, and electronic contact cleaner

    Aerosols are sprays that contain propellants and solvents. They include:

    • Spray paint, hair spray, deodorant spray, vegetable oil sprays, and fabric protector spray

    Gases may be in household or commercial products, or used in the medical field to provide pain relief. They are found in:

    • Butane lighters, propane tanks, whipped cream dispensers, and refrigerant gases
    • Anesthesia, including ether, chloroform, halothane, and nitrous oxide (commonly called “laughing gas”).

    Nitrites are a class of inhalants used mainly to enhance sexual experiences. Organic nitrites include amyl, butyl, and cyclohexyl nitrites and other related compounds. Amyl nitrite was used in the past by doctors to help with chest pain and is sometimes used today to diagnose heart problems. Nitrites now are prohibited by the Consumer Product Safety Commission but can still be found, sold in small bottles labeled as “video head cleaner,” “room odorizer,” “leather cleaner,” or “liquid aroma.”

  • How Are Inhalants Used?

    People who use inhalants breathe in the fumes through their nose or mouth, usually by:

    • “Sniffing” or “snorting” fumes from containers
    • Spraying aerosols directly into the nose or mouth
    • Sniffing or inhaling fumes from substances sprayed or placed into a plastic or paper bag (“bagging”)
    • “Huffing” from an inhalant-soaked rag stuffed in the mouth
    • Inhaling from balloons filled with nitrous oxide

    Because the “high” lasts only a few minutes, people who use inhalants often try to make the feeling last longer by inhaling repeatedly over several hours.

  • How Do Inhalants Affect the Brain?

    The lungs absorb inhaled chemicals into the bloodstream very quickly, sending them throughout the brain and body. Nearly all inhalants (except nitrites) produce a pleasurable effect by slowing down brain activity. Nitrites, in contrast, expand and relax blood vessels.

    Short-Term Effects

    Within seconds, users feel intoxicated and experience effects similar to those of alcohol, such as slurred speech, lack of coordination, euphoria (a feeling of intense happiness), and dizziness. Some users also experience lightheadedness, hallucinations (seeing things that are not really there), and delusions (believing something that is not true). If enough of the chemical is inhaled, nearly all solvents and gases produce anesthesia—a loss of sensation—and can lead to unconsciousness.

    The high usually lasts only a few minutes, causing people to continue the high by inhaling repeatedly, which is very dangerous. Repeated use in one session can cause a person to lose consciousness and possibly even die.

    With repeated inhaling, many users feel less inhibited and less in control. Some may feel drowsy for several hours and have a headache that lasts a while.

    Long-Term Effects

    Inhalants often contain more than one chemical. Some chemicals leave the body quickly, but others stay for a long time and get absorbed by fatty tissues in the brain and central nervous system. Over the long term, the chemicals can cause serious problems:

    • Damage to nerve fibers. Long-term inhalant use can break down the protective sheath around certain nerve fibers in the brain and elsewhere in the body. When this happens, nerve cells are not able to send messages as well, which can cause muscle spasms and tremors or even permanent trouble with basic actions like walking, bending, and talking. These effects are similar to what happens to people with multiple sclerosis.
    • Damage to brain cells. Inhalants also can damage brain cells by preventing them from getting enough oxygen. The effects of this condition, also known as brain hypoxia, depend on the area of the brain affected. The hippocampus, for example, is responsible for memory, so someone who repeatedly uses inhalants may be unable to learn new things or may have a hard time carrying on simple conversations. If the cerebral cortex is affected, the ability to solve complex problems and plan ahead will be compromised. And, if the cerebellum is affected, it can cause a person to move slowly or be clumsy.

    Learn more about how the brain works and what happens when a person uses drugs.

  • 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 some of the harmful effects of inhalants.

    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

    • Reduced 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, impaired thinking, loss of coordination, limb spasms, hearing and vision loss)
    • Liver and kidney damage

    Spot removers, degreasers

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

    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
  • Can You Get Addicted to Inhalants?

    It isn’t common, but addiction can happen. Some people, particularly those who use inhalants a lot and for a long time, report a strong need to continue using inhalants. Using inhalants over and over again can cause mild withdrawal when stopped. In fact, research in animal models shows that toluene can affect the brain in a way that is similar to other drugs of use (e.g., amphetamines). Toluene increases dopamine activity in reward areas of the brain, and the long-term disruption of the dopamine system is one of the key factors leading to addiction.

  • Can You Die If You Use Inhalants?

    Yes, using inhalants can cause death, even after just one use, by:

    • Sudden sniffing death—heart beats quickly and irregularly, and then suddenly stops (cardiac arrest)
    • Asphyxiation—toxic fumes replace oxygen in the lungs so that a person stops breathing
    • Suffocation—air is blocked from entering the lungs when inhaling fumes from a plastic bag placed over the head
    • Convulsions or seizures—abnormal electrical discharges in the brain
    • Coma—the brain shuts down all but the most vital functions
    • Choking—inhaling vomit after inhalant use
    • Injuries—accidents, including driving, while intoxicated
  • How Many Teens Use Inhalants?

    Inhalants are often among the first drugs that young adolescents use. In fact, they are one of the few classes of drugs that are used more by younger adolescents than older ones. Inhalant use can become chronic and continue into adulthood.

    Swipe left or right to scroll.

    Monitoring the Future Study: Trends in Prevalence of Inhalants for 8th Graders, 10th Graders, and 12th Graders; 2015 (in percent)*
    Drug Time Period 8th Graders 10th Graders 12th Graders
    Inhalants Lifetime [9.40] [7.20] 5.70
    Past Year 4.60 2.90 1.90
    Past Month 2.00 1.20 0.70

    For more statistics on teen drug use, see NIDA’s Monitoring the Future study.

  • What Should I Do If Someone I Know Needs Help?

    If you or a friend are in crisis and need to speak with someone now, please call:

    • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (they don't just talk about suicide—they cover a lot of issues and will help put you in touch with someone close by).

    If you need information on treatment and where you can find it, you can call:

    For more information on how to help a friend or loved one, visit our Have a Drug Problem, Need Help? page.