Inhalant addiction is when you compulsively seek and use inhalants, despite any negative consequences. Although inhalants are often easy to access, they are dangerous substances, and repeated use puts you at risk of a fatal overdose.
Inhalant addiction involves physical changes to the brain that can make quitting difficult – but with the right support, full recovery is possible for anyone. This type of drug addiction is difficult to treat, because the inhaled substance is quickly absorbed by the body.
What Are Inhalants?
Inhalants are substances that produce vapours you can inhale, inducing a psychoactive or mind-altering effect. While many kinds of substances can be inhaled, the term usually refers to those substances that people never (or rarely) ingest by another method.
Inhalants is an umbrella term for a huge variety of chemical compounds, found in hundreds of pharmaceutical products and with a broad range of psychoactive effects. Experts often divide inhalants into four main categories: volatile solvents, aerosols, gases, and nitrites.
Volatile solvents are chemicals that vaporise at room temperature. They are found in a variety of common, cheap, and easy-to-purchase products, such as felt-tip markers, paint-thinners, correction fluids, and glue.
Aerosols are sprays containing solvents, such as spray paints, hair spray, and fabric protector sprays.
You can find mind-altering gases in medical anaesthetics (such as chloroform, halothane, and nitrous oxide) and household products (like butane gas and refrigerator fluid). Nitrous oxide, also known as ‘laughing gas’ is probably the most commonly abused gas inhalant and may be consumed through whipping cream dispensers.
Nitrates are inhalants that dilate blood vessels and relax muscles. People use nitrates to experience short highs and as sexual enhancers. Some common nitrates are cyclohexyl nitrite, isoamyl (amyl) nitrite, and isobutyl (butyl) nitrite.
How Do Inhalants Affect the Brain?
Different inhalants affect the brain in different ways, usually impacting several brain systems.
Aerosols, gases, and volatile solvents typically act as central nervous system depressants, slowing the brain down, relieving pain, and producing feelings of relaxation. On the other hand, nitrates are vasodilators that dilate and relax blood vessels, improving blood flow, and helping more oxygen reach the heart.
Why Are Inhalants Addictive?
Animal studies have shown that many solvents (excluding nitrates) act on the brain in a similar way to other CNS depressants like alcohol and benzodiazepines. Among other systems, they appear to activate the brain’s ‘dopaminergic reward system’, a pathway in the brain that underpins addictive behaviour.
The reward system is a natural part of how the brain works, encouraging us to repeat activities that help us to survive. When we engage in useful behaviour – like eating or having sex – our brains release a small amount of dopamine, affecting our neuronal pathways and making us want to repeat the activity. This helps us to form positive habits that underpin our survival.
Addictive substances hijack this system, flooding our brains with dopamine and reinforcing drug-seeking behaviour. However, unlike beneficial activities that naturally produce dopamine, drug-taking is typically destructive to our brains, bodies, and lives. Moreover, substances often release far higher quantities of dopamine than is normal, resulting in incredibly strong urges to use a drug that are very difficult to resist.
How Do People Abuse Inhalants?
There are several different ways to inhale volatile substances. People may:
- sniff fumes from containers
- spray aerosols directly into the nose or mouth
- inhale fumes from a paper or plastic bag
- put an inhalant-soaked rag in the mouth
- inhale gases from balloons
When you inhale a substance, it passes quickly from your lungs into your bloodstream, brain, and other organs. Users may experience psycho-active effects within seconds of inhaling the substance. Short-term effects of inhalants include:
- Loss of inhibition
- Loss of physical coordination
- Muscle relaxation (nitrates)
What Are the Dangers of Inhalant Abuse?
Inhalants are toxic substances. Taking repeated doses of inhalants can lead to slowed breathing, loss of consciousness, and even death. Because the length of the high from inhalants is so short, many people take them repeatedly over a few hours, increasing the risk of a potentially fatal overdose.
What Is the Extent of Inhalant Abuse in the United Kingdom?
Between 2001 and 2020, there were 716 deaths from volatile substances registered in the UK. This averages 36 deaths each year. Butane was the most lethal substance, accounting for 326 deaths over the period.
While deaths have remained stable over the past two decades, the abuse of certain substances has increased drastically. Nitrous oxide (laughing gas) is now among the most commonly abused substances in England and Wales, especially among young adults: 8.7% of people between the ages of 16-24 reported using nitrous oxide in the past year.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Inhalant Addiction?
Addiction is a distinct psychological and behavioural condition where you compulsively seek and use a substance, despite its negative consequences. While abusing inhalants increases the risk of addiction, not everyone who abuses substances is addicted. However, any form of inhalant abuse is extremely dangerous and should be taken seriously.
Some signs and symptoms that you may have developed an inhalant addiction include:
- Inhalant use becoming the priority in your life, dominating your thoughts and daily routine
- Neglecting responsibilities at work and home to take inhalants
- Losing interest in activities you used to enjoy
- Lying to friends and family members to hide your inhalant abuse
- Continuing to take inhalants despite negative effects on your mental and physical health
Treating Inhalant Addiction
Inhalant addiction is dangerous and destructive, affecting all aspects of a person’s life. However, addiction is treatable, and with the right support, anyone can make meaningful and positive changes and leave behind drug abuse.
In recent decades, extensive scientific research has uncovered a range of evidence-based treatment options for addiction recovery. No one treatment is suitable for everyone, and you may need to try different options to find the one that works for you. Addiction recovery programs often combine several treatment approaches in comprehensive programs that address the multiple needs of a person and foster long-term change.
Addiction treatment options may include:
- Cognitive-behavioural therapy
- Group therapy
- Support groups
- Dual Diagnosis
If you or someone you know is affected by drug abuse, it’s important to seek help as soon as possible. You can speak to your GP about treatment options or seek treatment privately.