Many balk at the term substance “abuse,” but in many cases it applies in a very specific manner. Numerous addictive substances, such as prescription medications, are manufactured for reasons entirely unrelated to intoxication. Terms such as “abuse” or “misuse,” while often used euphemistically to describe addiction, also serve to underscore the manner in which the use of these substances goes against their intended purpose. And while the term may describe non-medical use of prescription drugs, it applies doubly in the case of household inhalants—intoxicating substances that are not meant to be imbibed at all.
A wide range of such substances fall under the category of inhalants. Some are used in the manufacture of other drugs, such as when synthetic marijuana distributers lace their products with nail polish remover. But in a majority of cases, inhalants occupy their own space within the spectrum of intoxicating substances. Those who inhale household solvents and similar products generally seek a cheap and easily accessible high. This makes inhalant use particularly popular with younger drug users who lack access to typical street drugs. They’re also a popular choice for relapse among those seeking a workaround for drug screens that test for other substances.
Like most other intoxicating substances, these sundry, everyday products wield the power to destroy lives. As such, we believe it worth the time to seek a better understanding of the dangers associated with these products, and the obstacles one might face when seeking to recover from their chronic use.
Household Items Used as Inhalants
Despite our use of the word “drugs,” few inhalants actually fit this description in the literal sense. Some alkyl nitrites prescribed to treat chest pain are classified in this manner, and are sometimes sold as “poppers” meant explicitly for recreational use. But most inhalants take the form of everyday solvents and aerosol sprays. Even nitrous oxide, while typically associated with dental care, takes the form of a household good due to its use in pressurized whipped cream canisters.
Other common inhalants include: spray paint; cooking spray; propane; gasoline; paint thinner; and any brand of model glue or contact cement containing the chemical toluene. Some also use permanent markers. While marking pens present little danger on their own, savvy users will drain the fluid into a rag or paper sack for the purposes of effective huffing. And in recent years, more inhalant users seem to prefer computer duster for its extreme psychoactive effects.
Users may employ one of several methods when seeking intoxication. Some inhale their chosen substance directly from its container. Others may apply the chemical of their choosing to a rag or washcloth before using it to cover the nose and/or mouth. Yet others will spray paint or pour glue into a bag—usually paper, although sometimes plastic. And in the case of nitrous oxide, some may inhale from gas-filled balloons. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse:
“Although the high that inhalants produce usually lasts just a few minutes, people often try to make it last by continuing to inhale again and again over several hours.”
The household availability of inhalants does not mean they remain unregulated. In fact, state governments continue making attempts to cut down on their use. For instance, more than three dozen states will not sell contact cement or other known inhalants to minors. Inhalant use itself also violates the law in many states. But underage users may still gain access to household products purchased by a family member, and most inhalant users do not pursue their habits in the public eye. Some regulations, such as those against poppers, may prevent inhalant use with some success. Ultimately, however, these laws do little to prevent users from potentially suffering a wide array of dangerous side effects.
Possible Side Effects of Inhalant Use
While the immediate side effects of inhalants generally last but a few minutes, one can usually identify them quite easily. Similar to alcohol, inhalant use may cause a decrease in motor skills, a sense of dizziness, and slurred or otherwise distorted patterns of speech. In extreme cases, users may suffer hallucinations. Many users of inhalants such as contact cement or computer duster report hallucinatory effects on par with those of psychedelic drugs such as LSD.
As users continue inhaling their chemical of choice, they may experience headaches, vomiting and drowsiness. These side effects will sometimes last long after the euphoric effects wear off. Short-term side effects may also lead to more long-term side effects. For instance, many use nitrates due to reports that they may increase one’s enjoyment of sexual activities. As a result, many users engage in reckless practices such as unprotected sex, raising their chances of contracting infectious diseases.
Long-term side effects of repeated inhalant use include: nerve damage; disruptions to cognitive and behavioral development; decreased oxygen flow to the brain; hearing loss; and damage to the kidneys or liver. Extreme cases may even result in bone marrow decay.
In the event of overdose, users may experience seizures. Inhalants with particularly concentrated volumes of chemical ingredients may also lead to “sudden sniffing death,” which causes the heart to stop within minutes of inhalant use. This sometimes happens upon an individual’s very first time using the substance in question. Those who use bags to inhale their substance of choice may also experience suffocation. Much like overdose, suffocation may result in numerous harmful side effects, including coma or even death.
According to NIDA, substance use disorder arising from inhalant use does not occur frequently. However, both addicts and casual users may suffer withdrawal symptoms following periods of heavy use. Symptoms of withdrawal include sleep disruptions, excess sweating, mood swings, nausea and loss of appetite.
A Culture of Minimization
Once upon a time, you could scarcely turn on the nightly news without hearing that young people had been raiding their homes in search of one household substance or another. Inhalants no longer receive much press, especially in light of the ongoing opioid epidemic. Many people fail to take them seriously at all, possibly due in part to the sensationalized stories of yesteryear. Even those who know their dangers sometimes mock inhalant users on account of the relatively short-lived high associated with such intoxicants. But the side effects of inhalant use are no joke, and treating them as such serves only to minimize our understanding of their associated risks.
Often the case with drug abuse, minimization of side effects pops up in fictional media quite a bit. Movies and television shows often play inhalant use for laughs, while dramatic portrayals come across as too heavy-handed to be taken as realistic. For instance, despite its critical acclaim, many believed the portrayal of drug use in the film Thirteen to be over-the-top and unnecessarily exploitative. On the other side of the coin, we have comical depictions such as those in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Not only does Charlie’s inhalant addiction come across as a joke, but it arguably receives positive portrayal in some instances. The series implies on at least one or two occasions that Charlie’s latent musical abilities manifest most strongly when under the influence of inhalants.
We do not wish to lecture or propagandize. The writers of Always Sunny are not at fault for the failure of many to heed the consequences of inhalant use. We merely use them as an example of how easily the consequences have become minimized over the years. And to be fair, some comical portrayals actually do serve to underscore important lessons. For instance, an episode of South Park involving a made-up inhalant fad called “cheesing” questions whether students would even know to engage in the practice if not for the widespread news stories. One may similarly wonder if stories regarding the dangers of computer duster did not inadvertently lead to increased rates of users.
In any case, we can put these queries aside. It makes little difference whether we choose to blame the media or not. Either way, inhalants will still continue to hurt those who engage in chronic use. However, those who enter recovery will need to understand the culture of minimization. When people don’t take your addiction seriously, recovery sometimes feels a lot more difficult. And this is only one of many obstacles that will face those seeking to overcome their addiction to household inhalants.
Overcoming Barriers to Recovery
The minimization of this particular form of addiction may lead those in recovery to suffer feelings of isolation. Despite sharing many behavioral symptoms with other addicts, inhalant users may feel set apart from the crowd if they cannot find many others who share their particular drug of choice. Furthermore, minimization by pop culture and by certain less sympathetic members of the recovery community may cause recovering inhalant users to feel as if others look down on them or consider them weak-willed. These feelings may sap their motivation, leading to increased urges to use.
Inhalant users who suffer such cravings find themselves at great risk. Much like alcohol, inhalants are easily acquired. Cheap and readily available, they require no connections to a dealer or other such provider. One can accomplish a relapse following a simple trip to the supermarket, or even a brief rummage through the kitchen. As such, individuals recovering from inhalant addiction will need a strong program of recovery to deal with their cravings quickly. The best relapse prevention plan will be one that emphasizes “prevention,” trying to deter the onset of cravings altogether rather than simply managing them after they arise.
Therapy proves hugely beneficial in this regard. By engaging in cognitive behavioral therapy during the course of their addiction treatment, inhalant users will learn to identify possible triggers. They can then devise possible coping mechanisms, as well as a system of routines and recovery-based habits that will keep them centered and focused on maintaining the life they have at present.
Many other features of our programming may assist recovering inhalant users in forming a viable relapse prevention plan. For more information, please contact us at your earliest convenience. Recovery from inhalant addiction may not be easy—but it is far from impossible, provided you utilize the right recovery tools.