Inhalants are a broad range of drugs in the forms of gases, aerosols, or solvents which are breathed in and absorbed through the lungs. While some inhalant drugs are used for medical purposes, as in the case of nitrous oxide (a dental anaesthetic), this article focuses on the non-medical use of inhalants, as recreational drugs which are used for their intoxicating effect. Most inhalant drugs which are used non-medically are ingredients in household or industrial chemical products which are not intended to be concentrated and inhaled, including organic solvents (found in cleaning products, fast-drying glues, and nail polish removers), fuels (gasoline (petrol) and kerosene) and propellant gases such as freon and compressed hydrofluorocarbons which are used in aerosol cans such as hairspray, whipped cream and non-stick cooking spray. A small number of recreational inhalant drugs are pharmaceutical products which are used illicitly, such as anaesthetics (ether and nitrous oxide) and volatile anti-angina drugs (alkyl nitrites).
Inhalant users tend to be people who do not have access to other drugs or alcohol, 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 well, 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.
Within seconds of inhalation, the user experiences intoxication along with other effects similar to those produced by alcohol. Alcohol-like effects may include slurred speech, an inability to coordinate movements, dizziness, confusion and delirium. Nausea and vomiting are other common side effects. In addition, users may experience lightheadedness, hallucinations, and delusions.
Compulsive use and a mild withdrawal syndrome can occur with long-term inhalant abuse. Additional symptoms exhibited by long-term inhalant abusers include weight loss, muscle weakness, disorientation, inattentiveness, lack of coordination, irritability, and depression.
After heavy use of inhalants, abusers may feel drowsy for several hours and experience a lingering headache. Because intoxication lasts only a few minutes, abusers frequently seek to prolong their high by continuing to inhale repeatedly over the course of several hours. By doing this, abusers can suffer loss of consciousness and death.