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Research Report Series - Inhalant Abuse

Nerve fiber deterioration in an inhalant abuser
Nerve fiber deterioration in an inhalant abuser

What are
the medical consequences
of inhalant abuse?

Inhalant abusers risk an array of devastating medical consequences. Prolonged sniffing of the highly concentrated chemicals in solvents or aerosol sprays can induce irregular and rapid heart rhythms and lead to heart failure and death within minutes of a session of prolonged sniffing. This syndrome, known as "sudden sniffing death," can result from a single session of inhalant use by an otherwise healthy young person. Sudden sniffing death is particularly associated with the abuse of butane, propane, and chemicals in aerosols. Inhalant abuse also can cause death by:

  • Asphyxiation - from repeated inhalations, which lead to high concentrations of inhaled fumes displacing the available oxygen in the lungs;
  • Suffocation - from blocking air from entering the lungs when inhaling fumes from a plastic bag placed over the head;
  • Convulsions or seizures - caused by abnormal electrical discharges in the brain;
  • Coma - the brain shuts down all but the most vital functions;
  • Choking - from inhalation of vomit after inhalant use; or
  • Fatal injury - from accidents, including motor vehicle fatalities, suffered while intoxicated.

Animal and human research shows that most inhalants are extremely toxic. Perhaps the most significant toxic effect of chronic exposure to inhalants is widespread and long-lasting damage to the brain and other parts of the nervous system. For example, both animal research and human pathological studies indicate that chronic abuse of volatile solvents such as toluene damages the protective sheath around certain nerve fibers in the brain and peripheral nervous system. This extensive destruction of nerve fibers is clinically similar to that seen with neurological diseases such as multiple sclerosis.

The neurotoxic effects of prolonged inhalant abuse include neurological syndromes that reflect damage to parts of the brain involved in controlling cognition, movement, vision, and hearing. Cognitive abnormalities can range from mild impairment to severe dementia. Other effects can include difficulty coordinating movement, limb spasms, and loss of feeling, hearing, and vision.

Inhalants also are highly toxic to other organs. Chronic exposure can produce significant damage to the heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys. Although some inhalant-induced damage to the nervous and other organ systems may be at least partially reversible when inhalant abuse is stopped, many syndromes caused by repeated or prolonged abuse are irreversible.

Abuse of inhalants during pregnancy also may place infants and children at increased risk of developmental harm. Animal studies designed to simulate human patterns of inhalant abuse suggest that prenatal exposure to toluene or trichlorethylene (TCE) can result in reduced birth weights, occasional skeletal abnormalities, and delayed neurobehavioral development. A number of case reports note abnormalities in newborns of mothers who chronically abuse solvents, and there is evidence of subsequent developmental impairment in some of these children. However, no well- controlled, prospective study of the effects of prenatal exposure to inhalants in humans has been conducted, and it is not possible to link prenatal exposure to a specific chemical to a specific birth defect or developmental problem.

Hazards of chemicals found in commonly abused inhalants
List of hazards

What are the special risks
for nitrite abusers?

Nitrites are abused mainly by older adolescents and adults. Typically, individuals who abuse nitrites are seeking to enhance sexual function and pleasure. Research shows that abuse of these drugs in this context is associated with unsafe sexual practices that greatly increase the risk of contracting and spreading such infectious diseases as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis.

Animal research raises the possibility that there may be a link between abuse of nitrite inhalants and the development and progression of infectious diseases and tumors. The research indicates that inhaling nitrites depletes many cells in the immune system and impairs immune system mechanisms that fight infectious diseases. A recent study found that even a relatively small number of exposures to butyl nitrite can produce dramatic increases in tumor incidence and growth rates in animals.

Where can I
get further scientific information
about inhalant abuse?

To learn more about inhalants and other drugs of abuse, contact the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information (NCADI) at 1-800-729-6686. Information specialists are available to help you locate information and resources.

Fact sheets, including InfoFacts, on the health effects of inhalants, other drugs of abuse, and other drug abuse topics are available on the NIDA Web site (www.drugabuse.gov), and can be ordered free of charge in English and Spanish from the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information (NCADI) at ncadi.samhsa.gov.


Letter from the Director

What are inhalants?

What are the patterns of inhalant abuse?

What is the scope of inhalant abuse?

How are inhalants used?

How do inhalants produce their effects?

What are the short- and long-term effects of inhalant use?

What are the medical consequences of inhalant abuse?

What are the special risks for nitrite abusers?

Where can I get further scientific information about inhalant abuse?

Glossary and References


Inhalant Abuse Research Report Cover

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