Inhalant and solvents

Huff and puff and sniff

While a number of medications are inhaled in respiratory conditions and for other medicinal purposes, inhaling drugs for obtaining a ‘high’ is a recent development. These volatile compounds get instantly absorbed through the mucous membrane in the nose and the impact on the brain is instantaneous. While cannabis, nicotine, heroin and cocaine are also inhaled; these ‘inhalant’ drugs are not heated before huffing. They innately vaporize and this vapor is inhaled for the high. The process is colloquially known s huffing, puffing or sniffing.

On the rise

It is not surprising that dependence on inhalants is on the rise among homeless street children. These are inexpensive, readily available in workshops and garages, and do not carry legal liability for use. The inhalant is used with a tube, suction bag or simply a rag cloth from which the person sniffs through the nose or huffs through the mouth. Youngsters who use inhalants are likely to be aggressive and commonly have antisocial personality traits.

The culprits

Organic solvents, varnish, lighter fluid, airplane glue, gasoline, rubber cement, cleaning fluid, spray paints, shoe conditioners, typewriter correction fluid, paint thinner, petrol, kerosene and a fusillade of substances are inhaled for recreational purposes. By chemical nature, these substances are volatile and their fumes contain psychoactive hydrocarbons. The hydrocarbons enter the blood stream within minutes of inhalation and reach the brain giving the rush or a high. Toluene is known to effects the dopamine pathways in the brain, similar to drugs of abuse and its impact has been simulated with that of alcohol.

Rapid action

A volatile inhalant gets absorbed through the lungs and reaches the brain. Effects are seen within 5 minutes and may last up to 30 minutes or several hours, depending upon the potency and quantity inhaled. There is an alcohol intoxication like picture with 
excitement, euphoria and a floating sensation. Longer and deeper inhalation may
produce fearfulness, sensory misinterpretations, illusions, and hallucinations. Speech may become slurred and in-coordination sets in. In acute states, the behavior is aggressive and impulsive. Very high doses may lead to cardiac problems and instant death. Longstanding use of inhalants leads to forgetfulness and a dementia like picture due to sustained toxic brain damage.

Unintentional impact

Factory workers exposed to inhalants are known to have alterations in brain volume and electrical activity. MRI scans reveal loss of brain matter which usually occurs in advanced dementia. Loss of fine skills, incoordination, and subtle memory deficits appear in no time. Stomach ulcers, headaches, kidney problems, liver failure, heart attacks and asthma; all are commonly seen in unintentional inhalation too. Inhalants have significant physical impact.

MINDFRAMES: Reframing choices

Counseling and psycho-education are very important especially if children or teens present with this problem. Awareness, counseling and family therapy for inhalant afflicted individuals helps deviant teens and adults resume the appropriate track and adopt a drug free lifestyle. Substance dependence is an illness. People with diabetes, cancer and cardiac conditions get sympathy and understanding from their loved ones; sadly this is not the case with these drugs. The best person to help oneself is oneself. It makes sense to do it sooner than later.

Frequently Asked Questions

How are inhalants addictive?
Inhalants do not produce physical dependence on any of the body systems, thus the body does not crave for an inhalant after its use. However, the euphoria, inebriation and lightheadedness that the person experiences on using an inhalant makes one want to use it again and again, thereby making it addictive. Thus we see significant psychological dependence on inhalant substances more than physiological dependence. The neurochemical changes are rapid thus dependence is quite strong.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is inhalant use dangerous?
Yes, inhalant use is truly dangerous, partly because of its high addictive potential; but most importantly due to severe brain damage that it initiates. Severe respiratory depression and cardiac arrhythmias can be life threatening in acute intoxication with very large amounts of the hydrocarbon.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the signs of inhalant abuse in children?
Children try to hide their inhalant use but one can be smart and look out for the smell of the inhalant on the clothes or hair, skin changes around the nose, the presence of a bottle of the substance in the bag or room or subtle changes in behavior. The child may seem drowsy and sleepy, may stagger while walking and may develop mild to moderate memory disturbances, which can be a guiding point to interrogation and corrective action for the child.