Many people think of substance abuse as being an expensive undertaking, accessible only to those who have some way, however unethical, of getting their hands on large amounts of cash. But there is a category of substance abuse that involves ordinary household products that are available for a few dollars at any grocery or hardware store: inhalants.
What makes inhalant so pervasive is that it is accessible to almost everybody. The products can be purchased without restriction by people of all ages. There is no minimum age as there is with alcohol and tobacco. No prescription is needed as is the case with opioids. These factors make inhalants a common substance of abuse among people who don’t have access to money, such as homeless people and children.
According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), most people in Canada who use inhalants are between 10 and 16 years of age. In 2011, 5.6% of Ontario students in Grades 7-12 reported having used solvents or glue at least once during the previous year.
What Are Inhalants?
Inhalants are volatile substances that are commonly found in common household or DIY products. As the name suggests, they are usually ingested through inhalation. They can produce a psychoactive effect similar to what one experiences through alcohol consumption. Since inhalants include products with a vast array of ingredients, they can affect people in many different ways.
The sheer volume of inhalant products makes it difficult to categorize them. One of the more common methods of classification centres around the form of the product. The four general categories are solvents, gases, aerosols, and nitrites.
Volatile solvents are liquids that vaporize at room temperature. They are found in products like paint, paint thinner, gasoline, glue, and many household cleaning liquids.
Several household products come in gaseous form that can be abused. These include refrigerants, propane barbecue tanks, butane lighters, and whipped cream dispensers.
As the name suggests, aerosol products are those that are typically used by being sprayed from a can. They include hairspray, deodorant, cooking spray and spray paint.
Nitrites are used mostly in the medical and dental fields, but they can still be found in a few household items such as video head cleaner and leather cleaner. Unlike other inhalants that directly affect the central nervous system, nitrites dilate the blood vessels.
How Are Inhalants Ingested?
The method of ingestion depends on the substance. As with many substances that are abused, the danger lies not only in the substance itself, but in how it is taken.
Some products can be ingested with very little effort. The user simply opens the jar or bottle and holds it up to their nose while inhaling deeply. The chemicals can damage the nasal cavities through burning and inflammation.
This extremely hazardous practice involves spraying an aerosol substance into a plastic bag, which is then placed over the head. Bagging creates a significant risk of suffocation: as the user starts to experience the effects of the substance, they may suffer a loss of motor skills that renders them incapable of removing the bag.
A liquid substance is poured over a cloth or rag, soaking it completely. The cloth is then put into the mouth, putting the user at risk of asphyxiation.
What Are The Dangers Of Inhalants?
The effects of inhalants can be felt within moments of ingestion. Since they are inhaled, they enter the bloodstream through the lungs, and they quickly travel to the brain and other organs. The immediate effects of inhalants that can happen with each use include the following:
- Poor motor functioning, slowed reflexes, and loss of coordination
- Mood swings, ranging from irritability to euphoria
- Excitability and impulsive behaviour
- Nausea and vomiting
- Dizziness, light-headedness, and headaches
- Slurred speech
- Drowsiness and loss of consciousness
These effects are short-lived, usually lasting for a few minutes. People who use inhalants will frequently do so several times over the course of a few hours in hopes of prolonging the high. Each successive use of the substance exacerbates the effects, putting the user at increasingly higher risk.
Can The Use Of Inhalants Cause Death?
The dangers of inhalant abuse are sometimes overlooked, possibly because many people don’t automatically associate household products with substance abuse. Most instances of accidental ingestion are dealt with swiftly, and they involve relatively small amounts of the product.
However, even a single case of intentional inhalant use can lead to death in any one of the following ways:
- Sudden sniffing death. The chemicals in the products can lead to a rapid and/or irregular heartbeat, which in turn can result in cardiac arrest.
- Choking. One of the common effects of inhalant use is nausea and vomiting, paired with a loss of consciousness. This can result in the user choking to death as a result of not being able to move to a safer position.
- Asphyxiation. Putting solvent-soaked rags into the mouth can result in asphyxiation. In addition, high concentrations of inhaled fumes displace oxygen in the lungs, resulting in asphyxiation, regardless of the method of ingestion.
- Suffocation. When fumes are inhaled from a plastic bag placed over the head, the user can suffocate. A loss of motor skills and coordination can prevent the user from being able to remove the plastic bag in time.
- Carbon monoxide poisoning. Some solvents are converted to carbon monoxide, which is toxic to humans.
- Accidental injury. Because inhalant use can lead to dizziness, impaired coordination, and slowed reflexes, the user is more prone to accidental death from motor vehicle accidents and other incidents.
Long-Term Effects Of Inhalants
Prolonged frequent use of inhalants can lead to significant long-term consequences, including the following:
- Some volatile solvents can damage the myelin sheath – the protective coating surrounding nerve fibres. This can lead to nervous system damage that looks clinically similar to that seen in conditions like multiple sclerosis.
- The user may experience cognitive decline ranging from mild impairment to severe dementia.
- Due to the efficient means of ingestion, prolonged use of inhalants can have long-term effects on the organs, including the heart, lungs and liver.
- Bone marrow can become damaged, and this can interfere with the body’s ability to produce red blood cells, putting the user at higher risk of developing conditions like anemia and leukemia.
Use Of Inhalants During Pregnancy
Although the use of inhalants during pregnancy has not been sufficiently studied in humans, animal studies suggest that some inhalant substances can result in low birth weight and delayed neurological development in babies.
How Can I Stop Using Inhalants?
Many people become psychologically dependent on inhalants, meaning they experience strong cravings after a period of abstinence. However, the physical dependence is low, which means withdrawal symptoms, while uncomfortable, are not life-threatening.
The symptoms of inhalant withdrawal include anxiety, headaches, nausea and vomiting, insomnia, hand tremors, and mood swings.
Although these symptoms may be mild, quitting inhalant use can still be a challenge. If you are caught in a cycle of inhalant abuse, it is important that you seek help. Most addictions have their roots in other causes, and by joining an intensive rehab program, those underlying issues can be explored and understood. At 1000 Islands Rehab Centre, we will create an addiction rehab program that is tailored to your specific needs and circumstances. Contact us today to start your journey to a better life.