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What Happens When You Inhale Gases?

The classification of the different types of inhalants varies from source to source.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) classifies inhalants into four categories that include:

  • Gases that can be found in the household, commercial environments, or medical products, which are typically anesthetics: These include things like butane lighters, propane, whipped cream aerosol cans, and medical substances, such as nitrous oxide and chloroform.
  • Volatile solvents: They are liquid products that vaporize when they are at room temperature. These include industrial, household, and office supply products.
  • Aerosols: These are products in cans that contain solvents or propellants.
  • Nitrites: These are volatile substances that are often sold as room odorizers, video head cleaners, or for other uses.

NIDA reports that the use of inhalants as substances of abuse peaked in the 1990s. The majority of inhalant abuse occurs in individuals under the age of 18. The effects from inhalant abuse are very short-lived, and this results in individuals inhaling them repeatedly to extend their effects. Both the short-term and long-term results of abusing these substances can be quite serious.

This article will concentrate on the effects of inhaling gases as described by NIDA.

Gas Inhalant Abuse

The effects of inhaling gasesThe effects of inhaling gases can be broken down into short-term and long-term effects.

  • Short-term effects: According to a number of sources, the short-term effects of inhaling gases include mild euphoria, dizziness, drowsiness, disinhibition, lightheadedness, a lack of motor coordination, nausea, vomiting, headaches, and slurred speech. There is also the potential for death associated with heart failure (often termed sudden sniffing death syndrome), particularly from gases like butane and propane. Other short-term effects include potential fatal effects associated with asphyxiation, the development of seizures, choking, or the development of a comatose state.
  • Long-term effects: The potential long-term effects as a result of inhaling gases are quite variable. They include:
  • Liver damage
  • Kidney damage
  • Bone marrow changes
  • Nerve damage in the extremities that can produce spasms in the arms or legs
  • Potential brain damage that can result in the development of cognitive problems and other brain damage that can affect movement, vision, and hearing

The potential types of cognitive problems associated with inhalant use are quite varied. Most often, individuals experience issues with impulse control and often have outbursts of anger, have difficulty paying attention for sustained periods, and experience difficulty learning and remembering new information. In addition, brain damage associated with inhalant use affects motor areas of the brain, and this may result in issues with coordination or fine motor control. Finally, long-term use of inhalants is associated with the development of psychological issues that are most likely associated with brain damage. This includes the development of severe issues with depression, apathy, and even suicidal behaviors. Individuals may also develop psychotic behavior, such as experiencing hallucinations and delusional behaviors.


Pregnant women who inhale gases risk delivering babies with low birth weights and delayed behavioral development due to potential brain damage, as well as alterations in their own metabolisms.

Learn More
A 2007 study in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence investigated the factors associated with the abuse of a number of different type of inhalants. The classification of inhalants was different than the classification that NIDA uses (based on DSM-IV criteria); however, the gases category is similar to the current classification by NIDA. The results indicated that individuals who abuse gases were moderately likely to display signs of physical dependence once they stop using the gases; this occurred in about 14 percent of individuals who abuse gases. These individuals were also more likely to have issues with using the substances under hazardous conditions, taking more time than they planned to use the substance, developing physical and psychological problems as a result of their substance use, and reducing participation in other activities as a result of their substance abuse.

One of the interesting findings of this study was that individuals who abuse inhalants, including gases, were very likely to use them in a manner such that they consciously disregarded the potentially dangerous consequences of their behavior and were using the drugs as a method of “thrill-seeking.” Thus, it was determined that even individuals who abuse gases are at a significant risk to develop inhalant use disorders.

Trying to determine if an individual is abusing gases is a bit tricky. Very often, individuals who abuse inhalants leave behind a number of physical signs as evidence; however, since gases typically disperse, these signs may not be as readily apparent. Some of the things one might interpret as potential signs of abusing gases could include:

  • Finding empty containers (e.g., butane, propane, etc.)
  • Finding empty paper or plastic bags
  • Smelling chemicals, such as butane or propane
  • Noticing that the individual appears to be drunk or intoxicated but not detecting a smell of alcohol
  • Noticing that the individual appears to have periods of forgetfulness
  • Noticing that the person is suddenly failing to fulfill important obligations
  • Noticing that the individual is spending increasing amounts of time alone when they used to be more social

Treatment for Inhaling Gases

  • Even though individuals who abuse gases are risk at for the development of physical and psychological dependence, there are no approved medications specifically designed to assist individuals during the withdrawal process from inhalants. Individuals in recovery from inhalant abuse would most likely be prescribed medications to address the specific symptoms they experience as opposed to a standard medically assisted treatment protocol being administered.
  • The treatment for an inhalant use disorder would most likely require an initial phase of medically assisted withdrawal management and more intense phases of therapy, social support group participation, and psychoeducation. Because a good number of individuals who abuse inhalants are younger, it is extremely important that these individuals are able to identify with others who are committed to recovery. Isolating from peers will not be successful. Instead, many of these individuals need to develop a new set of peers that either support their recovery or are themselves in recovery from some substance use disorder.

The therapy component of the substance use disorder treatment protocol should address many of the issues that initiated the individual’s inhalant use disorder, teach the individual coping skills to deal with stress and other aspects of their lives that drove their substance abuse, and get them involved in a committed plan of long-term recovery and relapse prevention.

Conclusions

doctors
Abuse of inhalants that are gas-based carries similar risks to abuse of other inhalants. There are potential serious and even fatal consequences as a result of short-term and long-term abuse of these substances. Untreated long-term use of gases as psychoactive substances can result in permanent physical and neurological effects.