Inhalants Lead to Lifelong Brain Damage

the dangers of inhalants

Ever seen a carpenter’s drill labeled, “Not intended for use as a dental drill”? Or a steam-iron package that warns, “Do not use iron on clothes while they are being worn”? Believe it or not, those are true examples—evidence of human ingenuity’s talent for finding ways to misuse every possible tool.

Considerably less funny is the social problem of inhalant abuse. Young adolescents frequently start down the path of drug addiction by breathing in the fumes of spray paint, glue, nail polish remover, or other common chemical products.

How People Abuse Inhalants

When used as intended, over-the-counter chemical products have no effect on the user. When used as inhalant drugs, however, they produce a strong “high” characterized by euphoria, lightheadedness, reckless behavior, and hallucinations. To maximize the effect, inhalant users concentrate fumes by breathing directly from a container, placing a chemical-soaked rag over the face, or putting a bag containing the substance over their heads. Since most inhalant highs are short-lived, users commonly take multiple doses—one “huff” after another—to keep the feeling going, sometimes passing out as a result.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans—many of them under age 13—use inhalants for the first time each year. Besides immediate intoxication-related dangers, they are courting lifelong brain damage.

A Dangerous Dependency

Many inhalants—paint, glue, and gasoline, to name a few—contain toxic chemicals that can directly cause any number of ailments from hearing loss to hepatitis. All inhalant use has potential to starve the body tissues of oxygen, either by binding to and “smothering” oxygen in the blood, or by blocking breathable air’s route to the lungs (the latter is a particular risk when an inhalant is administered via a rag over the face or a bag over the head). Heart rhythm is affected as well: dozens of users succumb each year to Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome, the common term for lethal suffocation or cardiac failure due to inhalant effects.

And as with any harmful drug, frequent inhalant use can lead to addiction and withdrawal symptoms: heavy sweating, pounding heart, nausea, insomnia, and sometimes hallucinations and seizures. When someone continues regular use for months or years, it leads to even worse health damage: weight loss, chronic physical weakness, severe depression—and permanent impairment of function for heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, nerves, and/or brain.

How Do Whippets & Other Drugs Cause Brain Damage?

One contributor to lasting brain damage is the oxygen-starvation effect: after inhalants are used repeatedly over long periods, the brain may be permanently weakened. This is a special risk for the largest user demographic, young teens and adolescents, whose brains are still developing (the typical human brain finishes “growing up” in one’s mid-twenties).

Inhalants also cause deterioration in the myelin (protective sheathing) surrounding the brain’s nerve fibers, which slows the transmission of nerve impulses as much as 95 percent, reducing cognitive function and breaking down muscle control. People who use inhalants regularly in their youth often develop lifelong difficulties with such functions as speech, emotional stability, reasoning, and self-control. And they are at high risk for developing other drug-addiction disorders and co-occurring mental illnesses.

Symptoms of Inhalant Use

Your child or loved one may have an inhalant abuse problem if they frequently act drunk without any alcohol or smoke smells; if they develop facial rashes, sore throat, or runny nose for no obvious cause; or if you notice unexplained chemical odors, containers, or stains. Don’t ignore these signs and hope they’ll go away. Once symptoms become obvious—memory loss, personality changes, and impaired cognitive ability—the inhalant user may have already suffered irreversible, lifelong brain damage. Plus, the longer someone waits to get help, the harder it is to quit.

The time to confront the problem is today, with the assistance of doctors and therapists. Be sure to mention specifically that you suspect inhalant abuse, because even licensed MD’s are often unfamiliar with the signs. Request referral to a specialist if necessary.

Stop the Damage: Get Treatment for Brain and Body

Inhalant and other drug abuse can be stopped before it does permanent damage. Even where existing damage can’t be repaired, addiction treatment can prevent further harm and guide patients into a fully functional life—a life free of dangerous substances.

At HVRC, we offer a full continuum of addiction disorder treatments for young adults and others. As a hospital-based center, we have immediate access to licensed physicians and the best diagnostic services. To learn more, or to get help for a college-age teenager or yourself, contact us through the website or at (877) 592-2656.