Everyday household products used to cook, clean, freshen the air, or just make life all-around easier, become tools of destruction when they fall into the wrong hands. Easy access to such items found on store shelves, in garages, and underneath cabinets are often abused for a high that is cheap, quick, and easy to hide.
But regular abuse of the chemicals found in nail polish, paint thinner, and so many more products can lead to consequences that are far greater than users are prepared to handle. Physical dependence, psychological addiction, and death are all possible when users’ easy, cheap fix goes too far.
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Inhalant abuse most commonly happens among teens and young adults. According to data reported by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 1.8 million people aged 12 and older used inhalants in 2015. Adolescents were found to be the most frequent users, as 2.7 percent of people in the ages 12-to-17 group used these substances to get high.
Inhalant abuse in this population usually happens because users are too young to purchase alcohol and tobacco products legally, or they don’t have access to harder drugs, such as those sold on the street or legally in pharmacies.
While preteens and teenagers make up a large portion of the population that abuses inhalants, they are not the only group to do so. Adults do, too, and in many cases, these addictive substances appeal to people who don’t have the money to buy expensive drugs but still want to get high. Because they are inexpensive and commonly sold everywhere, it is much easier to disguise inhalant dependence or addiction when using them. Inhalant use is not harmless, however, and use can become chronic and continue well into adulthood if the user started while young.
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What Are Inhalants?
Inhalants are substances produced for everyday household or industrial use. They can be found just about anywhere — in stores, garages, under cabinets, and in cleaning supply closets. They produce little to no harm when used properly as intended. Directions often are included on the packaging of these products to help people use them safely. Their fumes, however, are what make them dangerous when used improperly or unsafely.
There are hundreds of inhalants out there, and any can be turned into a dangerous substance if used for getting high. Commonly abused ones include:
- Household cleaners
- Paint thinners
- Shoe polish
- Typewriter correction fluid
Most inhalants fall into four groups. Those are:
This group includes any product sold in aerosol cans including spray paints, hair products, body spray, and cooking oil sprays
Paint thinners, gasoline, lighter fluid, and cleaning fluids fall into this category. Art supplies such as markers, white-out, and glue may also produce fumes
Laughing gas, butane lighters, and propane tanks are examples of volatile substances used as inhalants
Nitrates, also known as “poppers” on the club scene, are products sold specifically as amyl nitrates. They usually are sold as other products, such as leather cleaner and room odorizer, to disguise what they’re used for
How Inhalant Use Works
Inhalant use occurs when users ingest the chemicals through “huffing,” a dangerous practice that involves breathing in chemicals, either compressed air or volatile substances, through the nose or mouth without the use of an external heat source. Among some users, huffing may be known as spraying (inhaling compressed substances), sniffing, or bagging. Bagging involves placing a substance(s) into a paper bag and inhaling its contents.
How Do Inhalants Affect the Brain and Body?
Chemicals that are inhaled are first taken in by the lungs before they hit the bloodstream, which then carries them to the body and brain, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). This can occur within seconds after the chemicals enter the body and last between 15-45 minutes. Users report experiencing pleasurable feelings that are akin to alcohol intoxication. They may suddenly become giddy and feel their muscles relax and skin tingle. Other effects of inhalant use include:
- Slurred speech
- A lack of coordination
- Hallucinations (seeing things that aren’t there)
- Delusions (false beliefs)
Repeated use is common among inhalant users because it intensifies the effects they experience. However, inhaling chemicals, again and again, can lead to a loss of inhibitions as well as a loss of consciousness. Repeated use also can lead to a psychological dependence as cravings intensify, and users seek out their next hit in an attempt to satisfy those cravings.
Chronic exposure to strong chemicals can damage brain cells over time and lead to nerve damage, hearing loss, memory loss, and more. Each use also can send users further down the path of addiction.
Chronic inhalant users who attempt to stop their use are likely to go through withdrawal, a period of symptoms that occur when the body attempts to adjust to functioning without the chemical. This period is characterized by uncomfortable and/or painful symptoms that are similar to symptoms of alcohol or benzodiazepine withdrawal, and they can last up to a month or longer.
Inhalant withdrawal symptoms include:
- Rapid heartbeat
- Trouble sleeping
Inhalant Withdrawal Timeline
The timeline for inhalant withdrawal is unique to each person recovering from their use. Therefore, how long the process takes will depend on several factors including how long one has been huffing and how much one has used among other factors.
Once users enter inhalant withdrawal, they may experience the worst of the symptoms within the first two to five days after their last use. Symptoms that run a month or longer usually include:
- Seizures or seizure-like activity
- Muscle cramps
- Muscle cramps
- Stomach pain
Longtime inhalant users may also experience symptoms that are similar to delirium tremens, also known as DTs, a condition that also happens to some longtime users of alcohol and benzodiazepines. Proper attention to this severe, and potentially deadly, withdrawal symptom requires professional help that can be found at a licensed, reputable addiction treatment facility.
What Are the Inhalant Withdrawal Treatment Steps?
Overcoming inhalant dependence or addiction may require enrolling in a drug treatment program that can remove toxins and other addictive substances from the body safely while minimizing users’ discomfort.
A comprehensive approach that employs the full continuum of treatment is found to be most effective for many people. It is widely recommended that treatment starts with a medical detox. After detox takes place, it can then be decided which treatment is best for the person in recovery. Programs are usually tailored to the person’s specific needs at the least intensive level possible. The continuum of addiction treatment typically includes medical detox, inpatient, partial hospitalization, intensive outpatient, and alumni or aftercare.
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Medical detox is the first step in withdrawal treatment, and it aims to stabilize the client medically. This process supports the body as toxic substances are removed from it. Medical professionals clinically monitor clients 24/7 to ensure they are kept safe and comfortable. These professionals may administer medicines to ease withdrawal symptoms and make them more manageable. If any health emergencies arise, addiction care specialists will be on hand to address them.
Medical exams that include drug screenings and assess the client’s health to determine things such as the severity of the addiction also happen in this stage. Clients may undergo extra tests such as a complete blood count, known as a CBC, a chest X-ray, and electrocardiogram (ECG), among other exams.
Once a complete health assessment is done, your physician will design a detox plan for you. If any mental health conditions are detected during this time, a placement in a facility that provides dual diagnosis treatment may be recommended.
While independent timelines for inhalant detox can differ, there is research that suggests it can take roughly a month to complete inhalant detox.
If an inpatient level of treatment is chosen for your or your loved one, you will be required to reside at the addiction treatment center as you follow a structured schedule that includes therapies that allow you to focus on your addiction full time with minimal distractions. Residential treatment can last anywhere from 28 to 90 days or longer if needed. NIDA recommends at least 90 days at a facility of this kind as it can increase your chances of avoiding a relapse as you commit to full-time sobriety. An inpatient/residential setting also helps people who have medical conditions that must be monitored closely.
A partial hospitalization program (PHP) is recommended for clients who need treatment that is moderately structured but still offers flexibility. It offers many a “bridge” between inpatient/residential treatment and outpatient programs. PHP clients typically don’t have serious co-occurring conditions, but they still are required to meet weekly commitments and attend therapies while living in apartment-style homes on a campus. They do not require 24-hour supervision nor do they receive around-the-clock medical care.
Recovering users who have mild inhalation addiction may be placed in outpatient therapy, which is less structured than inpatient/residential and PHP programs but offers the same therapies that promote healing the psychological effects of addiction. An outpatient treatment setting also allows for more flexibility as clients address their addiction and work to make the transition to full-time sobriety.
Outpatient treatment does not require substance users to live on-site at a facility. Instead, they can live at home and return there after they have completed their required hours of therapy, which can range from nine to 20-plus hours a week. According to NIDA, intensive outpatient services usually require attendance at sessions more than twice a week for at least three hours or more a day.
Outpatient clients can also tend to their obligations such as work, school, or caring for a child or family. This gives them more control over their schedules, but they are solely responsible for monitoring and keeping their environment free of negative influences and temptations that can derail their recovery. The outpatient option is particularly attractive because it’s less expensive. By living at home, clients avoid the room and board costs of a residential setting.
Inhalant users who recently relapsed and need time to recover as well as those who were in partial hospitalization and need more time to transition to full-time sobriety may find outpatient treatment a good fit.
Once treatment is finished, clients may want to use aftercare services as they navigate their recovery path. These programs, as well as a supportive alumni group that connects people in recovery, can help you or your loved one meet recovery goals you’ve set and reduce the chances of having a relapse. Follow-up medical care and ongoing therapy can help recovering inhalant users manage symptoms of post-acute withdrawal (PAWS), that can happen months down the line or even years after inhalant use has ended.
Struggling With Inhalant Addiction? We Can Help
If you or someone you love needs help with recovering from inhalant withdrawal, contact our admissions specialists at California Highlands Addiction Treatment (CHAT) for free and confidential help. We are here to help you get the guidance and support you need to start your recovery from inhalant addiction. Share your questions and concerns with us, and learn about the programs we offer.
Once you speak with a specialist, you will know what to expect from our evidence-based services. You will feel confident about making an informed decision about your treatment program. Our specialists also can review your private health insurance to see if your treatment costs will be fully covered. Call us at (951) 402-2075, and let us help you start your journey to recovery today.
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(June 2017). Understanding Adolescent Inhalant Abuse. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. from https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/report_3095/ShortReport-3095.html
(2017, February) What Are Inhalants? from https://www.drugabuse.gov
Anderson, Carrie E. and Loomis, Glenn A. (2003, September 1) Recognition and Prevention of Inhalant Abuse. from https://www.aafp.org