There are over 22 million Americans who have abused an inhalant before–and each year nearly a million more try inhalants for the first time. Inhalants are highly toxic and incredibly dangerous psychoactive drugs most often targeted by children for abuse. What makes this drug class so concerning is that many of them are widely available as everyday household items that are both inexpensive, legal, and thus mostly unmonitored. Many of them can result in addiction, withdrawal, overdose, or even death after a single-use. There are estimated to be between 100 and 200 inhalant-caused deaths every year in the United States. Chronic users who survive often face a host of serious brain and bodily health issues that are permanent and debilitating. 

What Are Inhalants & How Do They Work?

Hairspray. Glue. Nail polish remover. These are just a few of the hundreds of different types of inhalants. Many of these are available commercially and can be found under bathroom sinks, on kitchen counters, in the fridge, or tucked away in the garage. Inhalants are volatile substances that produce breathable vapors that when inhaled into the mouth or the nose produce mind-altering effects. 

Inhalants are fast-acting psychoactive drugs whose side effects resemble that of alcohol intoxication or benzodiazepine use. They can elicit feelings of euphoria along with drowsiness, disinhibition, and impaired motor function. These are common side effects of CNS (central nervous system) depressants that can also cause dangerous respiratory and cardiovascular issues. It is this effect that is usually the cause of inhalant overdoses or related fatalities. 


Inhalant Street Names

Glue, gas, sniff, whippets, poppers, snappers, room odorizers, and aromas.

The Four Types of Inhalants

This drug classification includes a wide breadth of substances that contains an equally vast array of toxic chemicals. Inhalants are often categorized into four categories: volatile solvents, aerosols, gases, and nitrites. With the exception of nitrates, the different forms of inhalants affect the body the same way. The reason why these distinctions matter is that the way inhalants are used (or what the street name is) can vary depending on their form. 

Volatile Solvents

One of the most commonly used forms of inhalants, volatile solvents are a diverse group of substances that include the likes of gasoline, glue, paint thinner, nail polish remover. Those heavy-duty felt-tip markers that you can smell from yards away? Those are volatile solvents too. If you’re looking for similarities between these products’ functions or chemical makeup, you won’t find one except for the fact that most of them are in a liquid state. However, when these liquids are exposed to air, they quickly evaporate turning into chemical-laden vapors that often carry small, distinctive odors. 

  • Airplane glue
  • Spot remover
  • Degreaser
  • Paint remover
  • Correction fluid
  • Fire extinguishers
  • Lighter fluid

Aerosol Sprays

These are substances that contain propellants which are found in an array of readily available consumer products: deodorant spray, hair spray, pressurized air (for cleaning keyboards), and even air freshener sprays. The most notorious of aerosol inhalants is spray paint. 

  • Analgesic spray
  • Asthma spray
  • Fabric spray
  • PC cleaner
  • Video head cleaner


These types of inhalants include both commercial products and medical anesthetics. Of the household variety, butane lighters, propane tanks, helium tanks, and coolant liquids are some of the most commonly used. Anesthetic gasses include ether, chloroform, halothane, and nitrous oxide which is better known as “laughing gas”. This is the most widely abused of all gas inhalants as it can be found outside of medical environments and in everyday products such as whipped cream dispensers which is where its street name “whippets” is derived from.


A unique type of inhalant, nitrates such as amyl nitrite, isobutyl nitrite, and cyclohexyl do not act directly on the central nervous system as the other types of inhalants do. Instead, nitrates dilate blood vessels which cause muscles to relax. This ability has led to nitrates being used as sexual enhancers rather than mood-lifters. Before their abuse potential was realized, these substances were used in a medical capacity. Since then, their use has been prohibited by the Consumer Product Safety Commission and any nitrate use is illicit. They are often sold in small brown bottles labeled as some sort of cleaner or odorizer.

Side Effects of Using Inhalants

Inhalant intoxication or an inhalant high produces similar effects to that of alcohol or benzo use: euphoria, slurred speech, dizziness, lack of coordination, and cognitive impairment. Continued use can result in severe and irreversible physical, cognitive, and psychological consequences. Depending on the specific substance inhaled or huffed, the pharmacological effects can vary.


Even occasional inhalant use can result in permanent memory, attention, and judgment impairment. One study found that half of inhalant abusers (between 9 and 17 years old) had diminished brain activity that suggested some sort of neurological dysfunction but had no sort of clinical abnormality. Inhalant use has also been associated with the degradation and loss of brain cells; damaging of the cerebellum; and development of neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s. Chronic inhalant abuse can cause reduced blood flow in the brain and structural abnormalities that can cause significant cognitive deficits.


Similar to other types of drug use, inhalants can lead to the development of depression, anxiety, or other mood disorders. Studies have shown that inhalant users have significantly higher rates of major depression and suicidal thoughts or attempts or personality disorders. They are also five times more likely to abuse other psychoactive drugs. These users also appear to be at higher risk of getting involved with conflict such as getting in trouble at school or work, getting fired, being arrested, or sent to jail. However, it is not yet clear if their conflict-prone, antisocial behavior is caused by inhalant abuse or the reason why they first turn to inhalant use in the first place.

Inhalant Abuse Statistics & Trends: Who’s Using Them?

Easy to come by and inexpensive, inhalants are a popular target for abuse by children and adolescents. The majority of users are young and between the ages of 10 and 16.  The majority of young users, however, discontinue use fairly quickly. In one study, 58% of those reported using by the end of ninth grade; of those students, less than half reported using again between 9th and 12th grade.  

There are both gender and racial divides amongst inhalant users: White and Hispanic students have nearly double the using rates as African Americans; female students had higher rates of use compared to males. However, socioeconomic factors and family dynamics are stronger determinants of whether someone is more likely to use an inhalant or not. 

Factors that are strongly associated with inhalant abuse are:

  • History of childhood abuse or trauma
  • Poor grade
  • Dropping out of school
  • Unstable family life
  • Unemployed parents (or low-income)
  • Low level of parental education
  • Living in rural or isolated area
  • Mental illness
  • Antisocial behavior

Inhalant Dependence & Treatment

InInhalant addiction is uncommon–but not impossible. Intake of these chemicals has been shown to interact with dopamine pathways which are tied to the reward system in the brain and are the root of many drug addictions. And since inhalants also have the ability to cause major neurological rewiring, physical dependence and the risk of incurring withdrawal symptoms are a possibility as well.

However, it is much more likely that someone would experience an inhalant overdose before addiction occurs. Currently, there are no approved medications should this happen. The best means to prevent an unnecessary tragedy is to take preventative measures.

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