Inhalants

Street names: Laughing Gas, Poppers, Whippets

Revised March 2019

What are inhalants?

Red lighter fluid can©iStock.com/dimbar76

Also known as: Bold (nitrites), Laughing gas (nitrous oxide), Poppers (amyl nitrite and butyl nitrite), Rush (nitrites), Snappers (amyl nitrite), Whippets (fluorinated hydrocarbons)

Inhalants are chemicals found in ordinary household or workplace products that people inhale on purpose to get “high.” People often don’t realize that inhaling the fumes of these products, 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, glue, and electronic contact cleaner

Aerosols are substances under pressure that are released as a fine spray. 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 often sold in small brown bottles labeled as:

  • organic nitrites, such as amyl, butyl, and cyclohexyl nitrites and other related compounds
  • amyl nitrite, used in the past by doctors to help with chest pain and sometimes used today to diagnose heart problems
  • nitrites, now banned (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 Inhalants Are Used

People who use inhalants breathe in the fumes through their nose or mouth, usually by "sniffing," "snorting," "bagging," or "huffing." It's called different names depending on the substance and equipment used. 

What happens to your brain when you use inhalants?

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

Many brain systems may be involved in producing effects of different inhalants. Knowing how the brain functions helps us understand what happens during drug use. 

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. This hurts the ability of nerve cells to send messages, 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 the disease 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 that gets damaged. 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 damaged, it will affect a person's ability to solve complex problems and plan ahead. 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 happens to your body when you use inhalants?

Short-Term Effects

Inhalants can cause the following health effects:

  • confusion
  • upset stomach
  • slurred speech
  • lack of coordination
  • dizziness
  • lightheadedness
  • hallucinations/delusions
  • headache
  • intense feelings of joy
  • sudden sniffing death due to the heart stopping
  • death from suffocation, seizures, coma, or choking

Long-Term Effects of Specific Chemicals

Depending on the type of inhalant used, the harmful health effects will differ. Different types of inhalants and their possible effects are described below:

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 paint sprays)     

  • 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

Methylenelchloride (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

Tricholoroethylene (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 using 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
  • purchase of excessive amounts of products used as inhalants

Can you overdose or 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

Are inhalants addictive?

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. Withdrawal symptoms can include: 

  • upset stomach
  • loss of appetite
  • sweating
  • problems sleeping
  • mood changs

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.

Below is a chart showing the percentage of teens who use inhalants. 

Swipe left or right to scroll.

Monitoring the Future Study: Trends in Prevalence of Inhalants for 8th Graders, 10th Graders, and 12th Graders; 2018 (in percent)*
Drug Time Period 8th Graders 10th Graders 12th Graders
Inhalants Lifetime 8.70 6.50 4.40
Past Year 4.60 2.40 1.60
Past Month 1.80 1.00 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: 

  • Call the 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 want to help a friend, you can:

If a friend is using drugs, you might have to step away from the friendship for a while. It is important to protect your own mental health and not put yourself in situations where drugs are being used.

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

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Monitoring the Future 2015 Survey Results

Published: December 16, 2015
NIH’s 2015 Monitoring the Future survey shows long term decline in illicit drug use, prescription opioid abuse, cigarette and alcohol use among the nation’s youth.
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