Inhalant Addiction

Inhalant addiction often receives inadequate attention in discussions surrounding drug abuse despite its nuanced and often misunderstood nature. Unlike more conventional forms of substance abuse, inhalants typically comprise everyday household, industrial, or medical products not intended for recreational use. These substances, ranging from aerosols, solvents, and gases to nitrites, are readily accessible, particularly among younger demographics.

Inhalants induce a rapid and intense high through inhalation. However, this euphoria is short-lived and frequently accompanied by profound neurological and physiological harm, sometimes irreversibly so. The ramifications of inhalant abuse are diverse and severe, underscoring the imperative for heightened awareness and understanding of this issue.

What is inhalant addiction?

Inhalant addiction refers to the compulsive misuse of products that emit volatile substances, leading to psychoactive effects when inhaled. This form of substance abuse involves a wide range of everyday products, each possessing distinct characteristics and potential for abuse.

The core of inhalant addiction lies in the psychoactive, or mind-altering, properties of these household substances. They are categorised into four main groups:

  • Aerosol sprays (spray paints, deodorants)
  • Volatile solvents (paint thinners, glues)
  • Gases (Nitrous oxide, aka balloons)
  • Nitrites (sexual enhancers)

Users, often younger individuals, are drawn to inhalants due to their accessibility, low cost, and the immediate high they provide. However, this comes with significant risks, as even a single use can result in life-threatening consequences such as “sudden sniffing death” syndrome.

The use of inhalants can be through various methods, such as sniffing, snorting, bagging, or huffing from a cloth, with the chosen method often depending on the substance’s physical state and the user’s preferences. The pursuit of repeated exposure can lead to severe health consequences. These include:

  • Neurological damage
  • Respiratory problems
  • Cardiovascular issues
  • Liver and kidney damage
  • The potential development of psychiatric disorders

Who is at risk of inhalant addiction?

Inhalant addiction is a serious issue that predominantly affects adolescents, teenagers, and young adults, though it’s not exclusive to these age groups. The demographic most at risk include males more than females, with a significant percentage of inhalant abuse starting before the age of 18, peaking around ages 14-15.

Factors that increase the likelihood of someone turning to inhalants include:

Experiencing physical or sexual abuse

  • Neglect
  • Dropping out of school
  • Incarceration
  • Homelessness
  • Individuals in remote or rural locations with high unemployment, poverty, or violence
  • Those with a history of mental illness
  • Those with a history of substance abuse
  • Low self-esteem
  • People with suicidal tendencies

Causes of inhalant addiction

Inhalant addiction can stem from various factors, including:

  • Accessibility: Inhalants are often readily available in households, schools, and workplaces, making them easily accessible to individuals susceptible to experimentation or seeking a quick high.
  • Peer influence: Social circles and peer pressure can significantly initiate inhalant use, especially among adolescents and young adults. Influence from friends or peers who engage in inhalant abuse may lead others to try it as well.
  • Mental health factors: Underlying mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, or trauma, can contribute to the development of inhalant addiction. Individuals may turn to inhalants as a way to self-medicate or cope with emotional distress.
  • Curiosity and experimentation: Some individuals may try inhalants out of curiosity or as a form of experimentation, unaware of the potential risks and consequences associated with their use.
  • Environmental factors: Exposure to environments where inhalant abuse is normalised or glamorised, such as within certain social or familial contexts, can increase the likelihood of addiction.
  • Genetic predisposition: There may be a genetic predisposition to addiction, including inhalant addiction, which can influence an individual’s susceptibility to developing dependence on these substances.
  • Lack of awareness: Limited understanding of the dangers and consequences of inhalant abuse among individuals, families, and communities may contribute to the perpetuation of addiction.
  • Psychological dependence: Continued use of inhalants can lead to psychological dependence, where individuals experience cravings and compulsions to use the substances despite adverse effects on their health and well-being.

Understanding these underlying causes is crucial for prevention, early intervention, and effective treatment strategies for inhalant addiction.

How common is inhalant addiction?

According to data from the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, approximately 0.8% of people aged 12 or older reported using inhalants in the past 12 months, equating to about 2.2 million individuals.

Focusing on younger demographics, the 2022 Monitoring the Future Survey revealed that 3.6% of 12-14-year-olds, 2.4% of 15-17-year-olds, and 1.8% of 18-20-year-olds reported inhalant use in the past year. Moreover, about 0.1% of people aged 12 or older had an inhalant use disorder in the past 12 months, translating to roughly 335,000 people.

Symptoms of inhalant addiction

Inhalant addiction manifests through a variety of signs and symptoms.

Physical signs:

  • Dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Loss of coordination
  • Visible deterioration in physical appearance, including poor hygiene and chemical residues on their body or clothes

Psychological signs:

  • Mood swings
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Noticeable withdrawal from social interactions and activities previously enjoyed
  • Academic or work performance may decline
  • Secretive or deceitful behaviour to hide substance abuse.

Long-term consequences of chronic inhalant use:

  • Neurological damage
  • Respiratory problems
  • Cardiovascular issues
  • Liver and kidney damage
  • Psychiatric disorders

Treatment options for inhalant addiction

Treatment for inhalant addiction typically involves a combination of medical, psychological, and behavioural interventions. Here are some common approaches:

  • Medical management: In some cases, medication may be prescribed to manage withdrawal symptoms or co-occurring mental health disorders. This could include antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, or medications to address specific symptoms of withdrawal.
  • Detox: For individuals with severe inhalant addiction, a medically supervised detoxification may be necessary to manage withdrawal symptoms safely. This typically involves monitoring vital signs and providing support as the body adjusts to the absence of inhalants.
  • Counselling and therapy: Behavioural therapies, such as cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), motivational interviewing, and contingency management, can be effective in helping individuals address the underlying causes of addiction, develop coping strategies, and learn healthier behaviours.
  • Support groups: Participation in support groups, such as Narcotics Anonymous (NA) or SMART Recovery, can provide valuable peer support and encouragement during recovery. These groups offer a sense of community and understanding among individuals facing similar challenges.
  • Family therapy: Involving family members in the treatment process can help improve communication, address family dynamics that may contribute to addiction, and provide a supportive environment for recovery.
  • Relapse prevention: Education about the risks of inhalant abuse and strategies for preventing relapse are important components of treatment. Learning to identify triggers, develop coping skills, and build a relapse prevention plan can help individuals maintain sobriety over the long term.
  • Holistic approaches: Some individuals may benefit from complementary therapies such as mindfulness meditation, yoga, acupuncture, or art therapy, which can promote overall well-being and stress reduction.
  • Aftercare: Planning for ongoing support and resources after treatment is essential for maintaining recovery. This may include continued therapy, participation in support groups, vocational or educational assistance, and connections to community resources.

Treatment needs to be tailored to the individual’s specific needs and circumstances and for ongoing support to help prevent relapse and support long-term recovery. If you or someone you know is struggling with inhalant addiction, seeking professional help from a qualified healthcare provider or addiction specialist is recommended.

The next step

If you or someone you know is struggling with inhalant addiction, take action now. Acknowledge the problem, seek professional help, explore treatment options, build a support network, and take action today. Recovery is possible with the right support and resources, so don’t wait any longer to start the journey toward a healthier, happier life free from the grip of addiction.

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How are inhalants dangerous when used as a recreational drug?

Inhalants are dangerous as recreational drugs because they can cause immediate effects like confusion, dizziness, and loss of coordination. Over time, repeated use can lead to severe health issues, including brain damage, liver and kidney damage, and heart failure. Inhalants can also cause sudden sniffing death syndrome, where heart failure occurs after a single use or many uses, making even one-time use potentially fatal.