Drug Guide

Inhalants

By Anthony McDaniel, M.D.

Inhalants are a broad range of drugs whose volatile vapors are taken in via the nose and trachea. Inhalants are taken by volatization, and do not include drugs that are inhaled after burning or heating. For example, amyl nitrate and toluene are considered inhalants, but tobacco, marijuana, and crack are not..While some inhalant drugs are used for medical purposes, as in the case of nitrous oxide (a dental anaesthetic), this article focuses on inhalant abuse as recreational drugs that are used for their intoxicating effect. Inhalant users tend to be people who are bored or do not have access to other drugs, such as children, teenagers, incarcerated or institutionalized people, and marginalized individuals. The most serious inhalant abuse occurs among children and teens who "...live on the streets completely without family ties." Inhalant users inhale vapor or aerosol propellant gases using plastic bags held over the mouth or by breathing from a solvent-soaked rag or an open container. The effects of inhalants range from an alcohol-like intoxication and intense euphoria to vivid hallucinations, depending on the substance and the dosage. Some inhalant users are injured due to the harmful effects of the solvents or gases or due to other chemicals used in the products that they are inhaling. As with any recreational drug, users can be injured due to dangerous behavior while they are intoxicated, such as driving under the influence. In some cases, users have died from hypoxia (lack of oxygen), pneumonia, cardiac failure or arrest, or aspiration of vomit.

Statistics on deaths caused by inhalant abuse are difficult to determine. It may be severely underreported, because death is often attributed to a discrete event such as a stroke or a heart attack, even if the event happened because of inhalant abuse. Inhalant use or abuse was mentioned on 144 death certificates in Texas during the period 1988–1998 and was reported in 39 deaths in Virginia between 1987 and 1996 from acute voluntary exposure to abused inhalants.

Statistics on deaths caused by inhalant abuse are difficult to determine. It may be severely underreported, because death is often attributed to a discrete event such as a stroke or a heart attack, even if the event happened because of inhalant abuse. Inhalant use or abuse was mentioned on 144 death certificates in Texas during the period 1988–1998 and was reported in 39 deaths in Virginia between 1987 and 1996 from acute voluntary exposure to abused inhalants. Regardless of which inhalant is used, improper administration can lead to death or injury. One major risk is hypoxia, which can occur due to inhaling fumes from a plastic bag, or from using proper equipment but not adding oxygen or room air. When a gas that was stored under high pressure is released, it cools abruptly and can cause frostbite if it is inhaled directly from the container. Finally, many inhalants are volatile organic chemicals and can catch fire or explode. As with many other drugs, users may also injure themselves due to loss of coordination or impaired judgment, especially if they attempt to drive.

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