For references to the studies discussed in this info sheet, see the reference list.
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What are inhalants?
Inhalants are products that give off chemical vapours. Many inhalants are volatile solvents—gasoline, paint thinner, glue—used to perform everyday tasks at home, school or work. They are not intended for inhalation. When purposely inhaled, often from a bag (“bagged”) or soaked cloth (“huffed”), the vapours affect how we think and feel, slowing down our heart rate, breathing, thoughts and actions.
Why do we use inhalants?
People inhale solvents for a variety of reasons. Some experiment with inhalants once or twice to see what the experience feels like. Others use inhalants for the same reasons many of us use alcohol—to help us relax, socialize, open up to friends about emotional matters, or escape from things we don’t like in our lives. Since solvents are more affordable than alcohol or other drugs, limited access to money is a factor in why people may choose inhalants over other substances. But like other mind-altering substances, inhalants can be harmful.
Many people choose not to use inhalants or to use the substances in moderation, because being less in control of their body and behaviour increases the likelihood of accidents or making unwise choices such as having unsafe sex. Using inhalants may help us feel more outgoing at a party, but repeatedly inhaling solvents to address social anxiety may lead to harms to our health or relationships
What happens when we use inhalants?
Inhalants are absorbed through the lungs and travel quickly through the bloodstream to the brain. Volatile solvents slow down activity between the nerve cells in the brain. This usually makes us feel more relaxed. But the effects of inhalants can be different for different people. For instance, instead of feeling relaxed, some of us may feel anxious or panicky. Some of the factors that can influence how inhalants affect us include our
past experiences with the substance,
present mood and surroundings, and
mental and physical health condition.
Impact on well-being
Most inhalants are produced from petroleum or natural gas and contain a mixture of toxic chemicals. Even infrequent use of inhalants increases our risk of experiencing negative impacts on our health. For instance, inhaling even on only one occasion, may lead to a rapid irregular heartbeat resulting in heart failure. And inhalants catch fire easily. Using inhalants near any type of open flame increases the risk of suffering burns.
Several inhalations may make us feel less inhibited, open and friendly. But a few more may affect our balance and coordination, putting us at risk of injuries. Being too high can also lead to making risky decisions such as driving a vehicle or doing other dangerous things.
Regular use of inhalants is linked with negative impacts on the heart, liver and kidneys. It also increases the risk of a decline in cognitive functions, including memory, learning, movement and coordination. Research suggests these deficits may improve when use is stopped, but how long this might take and the degree of improvement is unclear. Some research suggests a link between inhalant use and depression. But it is not clear how much of the association is based on inhalant use and how much is due to other factors such as vulnerability to depression. Regular use of inhalants by women while pregnant may harm the fetus.
Acute adverse effects
Prolonged inhaling without taking a break can lead to passing out. If a bag is still firmly in place around our nose and mouth, there is a risk of death from lack of oxygen. Choking on vomit when unconscious can also lead to death.
If someone you know is passed out, call 911 right away. Remain with the person. Try to wake the person up. If they do not regain consciousness, roll them onto their side into the recovery position so they won’t choke if they throw up.
When is using inhalants a problem?
Using inhalants is a problem when it negatively affects our life or the lives of others. Many of us may think this refers only to people who regularly use, but even a single occasion of use can lead to a problem. For instance, we may make a poor decision that results in problems with relationships or the law. What’s important to recognize is the potential for adverse consequences of use in any context and over time.
Inhalant use, especially regular use, by young people has particular risks. Like other psychoactive substances, inhalants can interfere with normal brain development. Early use can also interfere with developing normal patterns of social interactions with peers and have a negative impact on well-being.
One consequence that can develop is tolerance. This happens when it takes more of a substance to achieve the positive effects. While most people who use inhalants do not become dependent, those who use inhalants frequently over a period of time may be putting themselves at some risk. A person who uses frequently may feel they need to use inhalants to feel normal and function.
The reasons people use inhalants influence their risk of developing problems. If a person uses inhalants out of curiosity, experimental or occasional use only may follow. But if a person uses inhalants to cope with a long-term problem such as anxiety, more long lasting and intense use may follow.
People who develop a dependence on inhalants may experience signs of withdrawal, including tiredness, depression, anxiety, irritability, headache and nausea.
Mixing inhalants with other substances
People sometimes mix inhalants with other substances to experience different feelings or offset the effects. But combining substances is risky as they can act in unexpected ways. The following are some common combinations and possible results.
Alcohol and other depressants
These are substances that slow down our heart and make us feel more relaxed. Since inhalants also have a slowing effect on the body, using alcohol, sleeping pills or other depressants at the same time increases our chance of overdose or death.
These are substances, such as energy drinks and cocaine, that increase our heart rate and make us feel more energetic. When combined with inhalants, they cloud our judgment about how intoxicated we are, increasing our risk of negative consequences.
Combining cannabis with inhalants may impair our control over our bodies and behaviour more than either substance would alone.
When prescription or over-the-counter medications are combined with inhalant use, there is the potential for side effects or for the medicinal benefits to cancel out. Consulting with a healthcare professional can reduce these risks.
How to make healthier choices about inhalants
Whenever we choose to use inhalants, it is helpful to know what steps we can take to ensure that our use is the least harmful possible. The following are some useful guidelines to follow.
Not too much. Managing how high we get in a given period can help to decrease negative effects.
Tip: Avoid repeated inhaling on one occasion.
Not too often. Limiting how often we use helps reduce harms to ourselves and others over time.
Tip: Reflect on your pattern of use and identify situations in which you are likely to use. Then try to break the pattern by consciously planning other activities for those situations.
Only in safe contexts. Trusting and feeling safe in your surroundings can make inhaling easier and therefore safer.
Tip: Use with a buddy. Using alone means no one will be there to help you if you pass out.
Are inhalants legal?
Volatile solvents are legal substances in Canada. However, some retailers voluntarily limit access to the products.
What to do if you or someone you know wants to explore change
To better understand how substances play a role in your life, visit the You and Substance Use Workbook. This website also features detailed information on substance use and mental health.
You can also find information about a wide variety of substance use issues on the Centre for Addictions Research of BC website: www.carbc.ca.
For information on treatment options and resources throughout BC, call the Alcohol and Drug Information and Referral Service at 1-800-663-1441. In Greater Vancouver, call 604-660-9382.
About the author
The Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research, formerly CARBC, is a member of the BC Partners for Mental Health and Substance Use Information. The institute is dedicated to the study of substance use in support of community-wide efforts aimed at providing all people with access to healthier lives, whether using substances or not. For more, visit www.cisur.ca.