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Effects of Inhalants

While different in composition, most abused inhalants produce effects similar to anesthetics. Anesthetics slow the body's functions. Inhalants cause intoxicating effects when administered via the nose or mouth into the lungs in sufficient quantities. If taken repeatedly, intoxication may last a few minutes or several hours. At first, users may feel slightly stimulated; with successive inhalations, they may feel less inhibited and less in control; finally, a user can lose consciousness.

Sniffing highly concentrated amounts of the chemicals in solvents or aerosol sprays can cause heart failure or death, especially when abuse of fluorocarbons or butane-type gases is involved. Additionally, high concentrations of inhalants can lead to the displacement of oxygen in the lungs and central nervous system resulting in death by suffocation.

Permanent effects caused by the use of inhalants include hearing loss, peripheral neuropathies or limb spasms, central nervous system or brain damage, and bone marrow damage. Additional serious side effects include liver and kidney damage as well as blood oxygen depletion.

The number of emergency department (ED) mentions involving inhalants decreased from 1,141 mentions in 2000 to 522 mentions in 2001. During 2002, the number of inhalant ED mentions increased to 1,496. In 2002, the patients with the highest amount of mentions were the 26 to 34 age group, with 474 mentions followed by the 35 and older age group with 408 mentions. Male patients had a total of 944 mentions while females had 482 mentions in 2002.

  • The effects of inhalants on the user:
    • BRAIN The chemicals abused by inhalant users affect different parts of the brain, producing a variety of sensory and psychological disorders. Many inhalants are thought to dissolve the protective myelin sheath that surrounds neurons - brain cells - resulting in cell death.
    • CEREBRAL CORTEX Cellular death here causes permanent personality changes, memory impairment, hallucinations and learning disabilities.
    • CEREBELLUM This is the center that controls balance and coordination. Inhalant-related damage results in loss of coordination and slurred speech. Chronic abusers experience tremors and uncontrollable shaking.
    • OPHTHALMIC NERVE Toluene may affect this nerve causing sight disorders.
    • BLOOD Some substances like nitrites and methylene chloride (paint thinner) chemically block the oxygen carrying capacity of the blood.
    • LUNGS Repeated use of spray paint as an inhalant can cause lung damage.
    • HEART Abuse of inhalants can result in "sudden sniffing death syndrome." This is due to a sudden and unexpected disturbance of the heart's rhythm. All inhalants can produce sudden sniffing death syndrome.
    • LIVER Halogenated compounds like trichloroethylene (a component of aerosol paints and correction fluid) have been linked to damage of this organ.
    • KIDNEY Inhalants containing toluene impair the kidney's ability to control the amount of acid in the blood. This is reversible when toluene leaves the body but, in the long-term, kidney stones may develop.
    • MUSCLE Chronic inhalant abuse can lead to muscle wasting, reduced muscle tone and strength.
    • BONE MARROW Benzene, a component of gasoline, has been shown to cause leukemia.
      • PERIPHERAL NERVOUS SYSTEM Chronic inhalation of nitrous oxide (whipped cream propellant) and hexane (found in some glues and camp stove fuels) results in damage to the peripheral nerves. Symptoms can include numbness, a tingling sensation or total paralysis.
      • ACOUSTIC NERVE AND MUSCLE Toluene inhalation destroys cells that relay sound to the brain. Chronic abusers can become deaf.
  • Potential long-term effects of inhalant use:
    • Potential Sudden Sniffing Death at any use, even the first time
    • Short term memory loss
    • Hearing loss
    • Limb spasms
    • Permanent brain damage
    • Bone marrow damage
    • Liver and kidney damage
    • Possible fetal effects similar to fetal alcohol syndrome

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