Drug Facts Chat Day: Inhalants

Can you get high off of Sharpies®?

Yes, Sharpies contain volatile solvents—and when inhaled these solvents can produce a "high." The effects of inhalants (including Sharpies) can be similar to those of alcohol and include slurred speech, lack of coordination, euphoria, and dizziness. Inhalants can be very dangerous, particularly in children, some of whom have been known to die after a single session of inhaling chemical fumes. For more information on inhalants, visit: http://teens.drugabuse.gov/drug-facts/inhalants.

What do inhalants do to your body?

The lungs rapidly absorb inhaled chemicals into the bloodstream, quickly spreading them throughout the body, including the brain. Within minutes of inhalation, people can feel a "buzz" or "high." The effects are similar to those produced by alcohol and may include slurred speech, lack of coordination, euphoria, and dizziness. People who use inhalants may also experience lightheadedness, hallucinations, and delusions. The high usually lasts only a few minutes. But with repeated inhalations, many people feel less inhibited and less in control. Some may feel drowsy for several hours and experience a lingering headache. The most important effects occur in your brain. Inhalants often contain more than one chemical. Some chemicals leave the body quickly, but others can remain for a long time, because they stick to fatty tissues in the brain and central nervous system. One of these fatty tissues is myelin, a protective cover that surrounds many of the body's nerve fibers (axons). Myelin helps nerve fibers carry their electric messages to and from the brain. Damage to myelin can slow down communication between nerve fibers. Long-term inhalant use can break down myelin. When this happens, nerve cells are not able to transmit messages as efficiently, which can result in muscle spasms and tremors or even permanent difficulty with basic actions like walking, bending, and talking. These effects are similar to what happens to patients with multiple sclerosis—a disease that also affects myelin.

Inhalants also affect other parts of your body, especially when used repeatedly. They can cause serious harm to vital organs, including the heart, kidneys, and liver. Inhalants can cause heart damage, liver failure, and muscle weakness. Certain inhalants can also cause the body to produce fewer blood cells, which may result in a condition known as aplastic anemia (in which the bone marrow is unable to produce blood cells). Frequent long-term use of certain inhalants can cause a permanent change or malfunction of peripheral nerves, called polyneuropathy.

People have told me that if you "huff gas" even one time, you can die or have serious brain damage. Is this true? If so, why does huffing do this?

Yes, it is possible to die or develop serious brain damage after a single exposure to gasoline (or other) fumes. If you inhale too much gas, it can push the oxygen out of your lungs, so you can suffocate. But the other important thing inhalants do is alter the fat (lipid) composition of neurons and glia, which are types of cells in your brain. This can slow down function in important brain sites. For example, your brain is in charge of functions that happen automatically without your even noticing, like breathing and making your heart beat regularly. If you interfere with the parts of your brain that control these functions, there can be serious consequences.

For more information on the effects of inhalants, visit http://www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/inhalants.

Do people use inhalants for breathing problems?

No, they use inhalers, which usually contain a type of steroid that reduces inflammation in the airways. Or they can be bronchodilators, which open the breathing passages. Inhalers are very safe when used as prescribed by doctors. Inhalants, on the other hand, are common household chemicals that contain a volatile component which can be abused. There is no safe way to use inhalants. For more information, please see http://www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/inhalants.