Primer: A Parent's Guide to Inhalant Abuse

Primer: A Parent's Guide to Inhalant Abuse

By Floria, Barbara 
July 29, 2017

A Parent's Guide to Inhalant Abuse

Father having a discussion with his teenaged son.

Inhalants are chemical vapors that alter the mind when breathed in. These extremely poisonous chemicals can cause death by suffocation and more commonly by triggering electrical abnormalities in the heart (called sudden sniffing death syndrome). They can also permanently damage the brain, liver, and kidneys. They can cause hearing loss, too.

Inhalant sources

More than 1,000 household products can harm the body when inhaled. Most act on the central nervous system. The National Institute on Drug Abuse organizes inhalants in these general areas:

  • Volatile solvents. These change to vapor at room temperature and include paint thinners and removers, dry-cleaning fluids, degreasers, gasoline, glues, correction fluids, and felt-tip marker fluids.

  • Aerosols. These are sprays that contain propellants and solvents. They include spray paints, deodorant and hair sprays, vegetable oil sprays for cooking, and fabric protector sprays.

  • Gases. These are gases used in household or commercial products, but also include medical anesthesia products like ether, chloroform, halothane, and nitrous oxide. Nitrous oxide can be found in whipped cream dispensers, and products that raise octane levels in racing cars. Household or commercial products that have gases include butane lighters, propane tanks, whipped cream dispensers, and refrigerants.

  • Nitrites. These substances open the blood vessels and relax the muscles. Instead of changing a mood like the other categories of inhalants, nitrites enhance sex. Nitrites include cyclohexyl nitrite, isoamyl (amyl) nitrite, and isobutyl (butyl) nitrite, and are commonly known as "poppers" or "snappers." The Consumer Product Safety Commission has banned the sale of nitrites for human use. Even so, these products can still be found being sold as "video head cleaner," "room deodorizer," or "liquid aroma."


Inhalants can be breathed in through the nose or the mouth in different ways:

  • Sniffing or snorting fumes from containers

  • Spraying aerosols directly into the nose or mouth

  • Bagging, which is sniffing or inhaling fumes from substances sprayed or placed inside a plastic or paper bag

  • Huffing from a rag soaked with inhalant and held up to or stuffed in the mouth

  • Inhaling from balloons filled with nitrous oxide


When enough is inhaled through the nose or mouth, inhalants can cause intoxicating effects. At first, users may feel slightly stimulated, then less inhibited and less in control following more inhalations.

Sniffing highly concentrated amounts of the chemicals in solvents or aerosol sprays can cause heart irregularities and death. High concentrations of inhalants also can cause death from suffocation. This happens because inhaling concentrated chemicals prevents you from breathing in any oxygen. If the lungs and brain are without oxygen for a long enough time, you will suffocate and die. This can happen with huffing and bagging.

Fatal dose

Death from inhalants can result from a very high concentration of fumes.

Deliberately inhaling a substance from inside a paper or plastic bag or in an enclosed area greatly increases the chances of suffocation. A long session of inhalant abuse can cause irregular and rapid heartbeats. A healthy young person can die from one single sniffing session. This is particularly true for the inhalants butane, propane, and aerosol chemicals.

Death also can be caused by:

  • Convulsions or seizures

  • Coma

  • Choking, from inhaling vomit

  • Deadly injury from accidents that happen while intoxicated

Remain calm if you catch your child abusing inhalants. Immediately remove or push the can, bag, or rag away and then stay with a conscious child in an airy room. If the child is unconscious or not breathing, call for emergency medical assistance and start CPR if trained to do so.

Seek professional help from a counselor or healthcare provider once your child has recovered.

Signs of abuse

These are signs of possible inhalant abuse:

  • Red or runny eyes or nose

  • Slurred speech

  • Stains on the body or clothing

  • Sores or spots around the mouth or nose

  • Chemical odor or some other unusual odor on skin or clothes

  • Drunk, dazed, or dizzy appearance

  • Nausea and loss of appetite

  • Anxiety, excitability, and/or grouchiness, depression

  • Empty spray paint or solvent containers, especially if they have been hidden

Preventing inhalant abuse starts with education and awareness. If you suspect your child uses inhalants, openly discuss the matter with him or her. Also stress that they're deadly, poisonous chemicals.


July 29, 2017


Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. American Psychiatic Association. 2013, ed. 5, pp. 533-38., Inhalant Use and Inhalant Use Disorders in the United States. Howard, M. Addiction Science and Clinical Practice. 2011, ed. July, pp. 18-31.

Reviewed By:  

Brown, Kim, APRN,Perez, Eric, MD