About Inhalant Abuse

Did You Know
that you can die from abusing inhalants,…even if it’s done just for a few seconds, ...even if it’s your first time?  It’s called Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome and it’s caused by heart arrhythmia and changes in adrenaline as a result of abusing inhalants.
What is Inhalant Abuse?
Inhalant abuse is the deliberate inhalation of fumes, gases or vapors for the purpose of intoxication.
What are Inhalants?
Inhalants are toxins and poisons,… not drugs.  Inhalants are defined as breathable chemical vapors that produce psycho-active [mind altering] effects. 
Inhalants are unique among abused substances because they are universally available and are legally obtained & sold.  Inhalants are common products that are used everyday in households, offices, garages, etc. and are generally divided into four groups: aerosols, solvents, gases

The primary focus of the New Approach to Preventing Inhalant Abuse is educating adults, stressing that inhalants are poisons & toxins, NOT DRUGS, and incorporating age-specific information into the curriculums and ‘teachable moments’ of children & youth.  

Approximately 10 years ago inhalant prevention presentations were initiated for pre-teens and teens; and they generally involved a ‘show & tell’ approach that, unfortunately, became informational forums for youth about how they could ‘get high’ with inhalants.  Data from the last ten years has shown an increase in the number of inhalant abusers under 16 years old; as well as younger and younger children regularly abusing inhalants, children as young as 11 years old. This data tells us that using a new approach to preventing inhalant abuse is essential.

The new prevention approach concentrates on educating adults about the dangers of inhalants and inhalant abuse.  The prevention for youth is specific for each age range and is centered around incorporating the message of “inhalants as toxins & poisons” into ‘teachable moments’ and curriculums of youth-serving professionals, educators, clergy, care-givers, parents, etc.  The new approach to inhalant prevention completely eliminates the ‘show & tell’ approach to youth.

Some Things To Remember:

  • Do not include inhalants in a list of ‘other drugs’ when doing an ‘alcohol, tobacco and other drugs’ presentation. 

  • Inhalants are poisons & toxins, NOT DRUGS

  • When talking to youth about inhalants, there are distinctly different approaches to use which depend on the age of the child. (see ‘What You Can Do’).

  • If you’re talking to a child or doing a presentation for youth, DO NOT include:
                1) a ‘show & tell’ of inhalable products,
                2) a presentation display aid that pictures inhalants and/or their               paraphernalia,
                3) a listing of places that inhalants can be obtained in the home,
                    office, etc.

  • Include inhalants in your discussions on fire safety.  Stress that they are toxic and highly flammable products.

As a group, inhalants cause polyneuropathy which is
permanent changes or malfunctions of the nerves, both in the central nervous system & the peripheral nervous system.  The neural effects can include: seizures, tremors, brain damage, brain stem atrophy, nystagmus (involuntary oscillation of the eyeballs), slow & slurred speech, unsteady gait, impaired muscle coordination, dulled senses, deterioration of the myelin sheath (the protective coating around the nerves) and salt & electrolyte imbalances. 

Gaseous and nitrite inhalants: act as anesthetics and can cause:

  • peripheral nerve damage,

  • limb spasms,

  • damage to bone marrow, increasing the risk of developing leukemia,

  • impair the immune system,

  • change blood pressure,

  • depress heart muscle functions, and

  • brain anoxia (permanent damage due to lack of oxygen).

Aerosol & solvent inhalants can cause:

  • skeletal abnormalities,

  • effect the rhythm controlling tissues of the heart,

  • suppress the immune system,

  • injure red blood cells (permanently interfering with their ability to carry oxygen),

  • cause atrophy of the optic nerve,

  • destroy sound-relaying cells,

  • impair kidneys resulting in kidney stones,

  • cause symptoms that resemble multiple sclerosis

  • and have been shown to cause cirrhosis of the liver

Due to the excessive brain damage caused by inhalants, long-term memory deficits, problems with reasoning and lack of alertness & concentration can occur.  For chronic abusers, only one-third of lost cognitive function returns after one year of non-abuse!


  • In 2003, 1 out of 4 6th to 8th graders had tried an inhalant.  That’s 25% of our nation’s children ages 11-13!

  • In 2004, inhalants were the most abused substance for youth age 12 & 13.°

  • In 2004 inhalants replaced marijuana as the most abused substance of adolescents.°

  • Other National Stats:
    1994 inhalant users   627,000*

          2001 inhalant users   1,100,000*; 71% were under the age of 18

          2002 - 10.5% of the nations youth age 12-17 are abusing inhalants*

          2004 - 2.1 million U.S. children abused inhalants, a 44% increase from .................2003**

^ Data from the: Partnership for a Drug Free America; March 18, 2004
° Data from the: Department of Health & Human Services ‘Monitoring the Future’ 2004 Survey
* Data from the: National Institute on Drug Abuse, Research Report March 2004
** Data from the: National Survey on Drug Use & Health; March 2005

Dr Richard Scatterday, Kaiser Permente
Dr’s Art Reigel & Ed French, University of Arizona at Tucson