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Inhalants include commonly used household products such as fingernail polish remover, gasoline, glues, cigarette lighter fluid, nitrous oxide, and paint thinner. Other inhalants include fluorinated hydrocarbons found in aerosol products, such as spirit-based markers, spirit-based liquid paper, paint spray, hair spray, and even computer cleaners. When the fumes from these products are sniffed, a type of mind-altering sensation may be experienced. Unlike alcoholic beverages, which all contain the same mind-altering drug (alcohol), inhalants contain many different types of chemicals, which makes it difficult to predict how people will be affected.

Effects of Inhalant Use

Inhalants cause chemical changes in the brain and nervous system. Some of these effects disappear after a short time, but some can be permanent. For example, frequent use of certain inhalants can cause irreversible damage to nerves in the back and legs (polyneuropathy). In addition, the direct effect of inhalant use on the cerebellum and the cortex can result in abnormalities in movement and thinking. Inhalant users are also at risk for Sudden Sniffing Death (SSD). Death actually occurs through suffocation when the fumes take the place of oxygen in the lungs and central nervous system. Cardiac arrest has also been caused when certain inhalants disrupt the heart rhythm.

Muscle weakness and hepatitis also frequently develop in chronic users of these products. Particular inhalants decrease the number of red and white blood cells in the body, which can result in potentially fatal aplastic anemia. Benzene found in gasoline is related to the development of leukemia, a cancer of the white blood cells. Obviously, lead poisoning is connected to sniffing certain types of gasoline.

How Inhalants Work

Because they are breathed, inhalants enter the blood stream rapidly and are then distributed throughout the body. Both the central nervous system (CNS) and the peripheral nervous system (PNS) are subsequently affected. Magnetic imaging techniques show that long-term users of inhalants have marked reduction in certain brain structures, including the cortex, cerebellum, and brainstem. The resulting losses in reasoning abilities and difficulties in balance and coordination attest to these alterations.

Many researchers now believe that the dangers of inhalants are compounded by their attraction to fatty tissue such as myelin. Myelin is a fatty tissue that insulates and protects the branches (axons) of nerve cells, much like insulation around an appliance's electrical cord. The chemicals in inhalants break down the myelin and slow the speed of nerve cell transmissions. This same action may be responsible for the condition mentioned earlier, polyneuropathy. Further, the nerve cell branches themselves may be destroyed. Unfortunately, damaged nerve cells do not regenerate.

Dependency

The most commonly used inhalants usually do not result in the development of tolerance to the chemicals or physical dependence on the chemicals. Many inhalant users, however, develop a psychological dependence that is difficult to overcome.