Addiction to Inhalants

Inhalant abuse, commonly called huffing, is the purposeful inhalation of chemical vapors to achieve an altered mental or physical state, which for most abusers is a euphoric effect. Abusers inhale vapors emitted from a wide range of substances. In fact, chemical vapors used as inhalants can be found in over 1,000 common household products. There are several general categories for substances that may be used as inhalants:

Volatile solvents are liquids that vaporize at room temperature if left in unsealed containers. Paint thinner, gasoline, correction fluid, felt-tip markers, nail polish and remover, and glue (such as rubber cement) all contain volatile solvents.

Aerosols are sprays that contain propellants and solvents such as toluene–one of the most common solvents found in aerosols. Common aerosols include paint, deodorant, hair products, cooking products, and fabric protector. Silver and gold spray paint are particularly popular among inhalant abusers.

Gases are substances that lack definite shape or volume such as refrigerants and medical anesthetics. Abusers frequently inhale gases found in butane lighters, air conditioning units, and propane tanks. Medical anesthetics such as ether, chloroform, and nitrous oxide are also abused. Nitrous oxide, commonly called laughing gas, is abused more frequently than any other gas. It can be obtained from whipped cream dispensers or products that boost octane levels in racing cars. It may also be purchased in balloons or in small, sealed vials called whippets, which are sold at raves or drug paraphernalia stores.

Nitrites are a group of chemicals including cyclohexyl nitrite, amyl nitrite, and butyl nitrite. Nitrites are used mainly to enhance sexual experiences rather than to achieve a euphoric effect. Cyclohexyl nitrite is found in room deodorizers. Amyl nitrite comes in small, mesh-covered, sealed capsules that are popped or snapped in order to release the vapors. Because of this popping or snapping, these capsules are frequently called poppers or snappers. Butyl nitrite is often sold in small bottles that, like amyl nitrite capsules, are referred to as poppers. Nitrites are available in adult bookstores and shops and over the Internet.

Who abuses inhalants?

According to the 2000 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, the number of new inhalant abusers rose approximately 158 percent from an estimated 392,000 in 1990 to 1,010,000 in 1999. The primary user group was composed of 12- to 17-year-olds–over 636,000 had tried inhalants for the first time in 1999. This number is more than double that of the 18- to 25-year-old user group (276,000.) Almost 17 million individuals have experimented with inhalants at some point in their lives.

Inhalants are the fourth most abused substances in the United States among eighth, tenth, and twelfth graders; alcohol, cigarettes, and marijuana are the top three, according to the 2000 Monitoring the Future Study. By the time adolescents reach the eighth grade, one in five has tried inhalants at least once. Prevalence of lifetime abuse has consistently been higher among eighth graders than among tenth and twelfth graders. In 2000, 18 percent of eighth graders, 17 percent of tenth graders and 14 percent of twelfth graders admitted having used inhalants at least once in their lifetime. Statistics showing higher lifetime use among eighth graders may be due to the fact that frequent inhalant abusers typically drop out of school and consequently do not participate in the tenth and twelfth grade surveys.

Data from the 1999 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) indicate that 14.6 percent of students in grades 9 through 12 have abused inhalants at least once in their lifetime; 4.2 percent of the students reported having abused inhalants at least once in the 30 days preceding the survey. Males and females abused inhalants at nearly equal rates–14.7 percent of males and 14.6 percent of females admitted having used inhalants at least once in their lifetime. Similarly, 4.4 percent of males and 3.9 percent of females reported having used inhalants at least once in the 30 days preceding the survey.

Where are inhalants abused?

Inhalants are abused throughout the country. According to the 1999 YRBS, in 11 states the percentage of high school students who reported having used inhalants at least once in their lifetime exceeded the national average of 14.6 percent. The states having the highest percentage of inhalant abuse are West Virginia (20.4%), Tennessee (19.2%), Nevada (19.0%), Wyoming (17.6%), Ohio (17.1%), Arkansas (16.7%), Montana (16.5%), Wisconsin (16.2%), Alabama (16.1%), Michigan (15.6%), and North Dakota (15.5%).

How are inhalants abused?

Inhalants are breathed in through the nose or mouth in a variety of ways. Abusers begin by inhaling deeply; they then take several more breaths. Abusers may inhale, by sniffing or snorting, chemical vapors directly from open containers or by huffing fumes from rags that are soaked in a chemical substance and then held to the face or stuffed in the mouth. Other methods include spraying aerosols directly into the nose or mouth or pouring inhalants onto the user’s collar, sleeves, or cuffs and sniffing them over a period of time (such as during a class in school). In a practice known as bagging, fumes are inhaled from substances sprayed or deposited inside a paper or plastic bag. Alternatively, the fumes may be discharged into small containers such as soda cans and then inhaled from the can. Users may also inhale from balloons filled with nitrous oxide or other devices such as snappers and poppers in which inhalants are sold.

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