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.