Clinically Reviewed by Linda Whiteside, LPCC

Medically Reviewed by: Dr. Ryan Peterson, MD

Inhalant Use Disorder

Table of Contents

Inhalant Use Disorder is a health issue where a person cannot stop using inhalants. These are harmful chemicals found in ordinary products like spray paint, hair spray, or paint thinners.

Abuse of inhalants is a growing concern. Behavioral health statistics reveal that many people, especially youngsters, are falling into the trap of this harmful habit. If not addressed, inhalant use can lead to severe mental health issues and physical harm. That’s why it’s crucial to understand, prevent, and treat this disorder.

What Are Inhalants?

Inhalants are volatile substances that produce chemical vapors that can be inhaled to induce a psychoactive or mind-altering effect. The types of inhalants include aerosol sprays, gases, nitrites, and volatile solvents.

Commonly Abused Inhalant Substances

Inhalant abusers often turn to everyday items for substance abuse. Here are some of the substances that are commonly abused:

  • Spray Paint: Many people use spray paint for inhalant abuse. It is easily accessible and contains chemicals that produce a high when inhaled.
  • Lighter Fluid: This is another substance commonly abused. Inhalant users often soak a cloth in lighter fluid and then inhale the vapors.
  • Felt Tip Markers: The liquid inside these markers is a type of volatile solvent. When sniffed, it can cause a person to feel high.
  • Aerosol Sprays: Items like hair spray, deodorant, or air fresheners contain gases that can be abused.
  • Amyl Nitrite or “Poppers”: This substance is often used recreationally for its euphoric effects.
  • Nitrous Oxide: Sometimes called “laughing gas,” it is commonly found in whipped cream chargers and can be abused for its mind-altering effects.

Effects of Inhalant Abuse on the Body and Brain

Inhalant abuse is dangerous and can lead to serious health problems. It affects both the body and the brain in various ways:

  • Sudden Cardiac Death: Abusing inhalants can cause what’s known as “sudden sniffing death.” This can happen even after a single use and is often caused by a rapid and irregular heartbeat.
  • Damage to Blood Vessels: Chronic inhalant abusers may experience damage to their blood vessels. This is due to the harsh chemicals contained in many inhalants.
  • Central Nervous System Problems: Inhalants can interfere with the functioning of the central nervous system, causing problems like slurred speech, lack of coordination, and tremors.
  • Mental Disorders: Inhalant abuse can also lead to various mental health issues. These include problems like depression, anxiety, and psychosis.
  • Long-Term Physical Health Problems: Chronic abuse of inhalants can lead to serious physical health problems. For instance, long-term inhalant abuse can lead to liver damage, kidney damage, and hearing loss.
  • Withdrawal Symptoms: Those with inhalant dependence who stop using may experience withdrawal symptoms. These can include nausea, sweating, problems sleeping, and mood changes.

Signs and Symptoms of Inhalant Use Disorder

Identifying inhalant use disorder can be challenging due to its varied signs and symptoms. However, certain physical, behavioral, and psychological signs may indicate inhalant abuse.

Physical Signs and Symptoms

Here are some of the physical signs that may suggest a person is abusing inhalants:

  • Slurred Speech: This can happen due to the impact of inhalants on the central nervous system.
  • Runny Nose: Inhalant users often inhale substances through their noses, leading to a persistent runny nose.
  • Sores Around the Mouth: These may develop as a result of the harsh chemicals in inhalants irritating the skin.
  • Inhalant Intoxication: Symptoms like dizziness, lack of coordination, and lethargy can indicate inhalant intoxication.
  • Sudden Sniffing Death: This is a severe and potentially fatal effect of inhalant abuse. It occurs when inhalant abuse causes a rapid, irregular heartbeat leading to cardiac arrest.

Behavioral Signs and Symptoms

Certain behaviors can indicate inhalant use disorder, such as:

  • Hiding Inhalant Products: Individuals may stash inhalant products like paint thinners or aerosol sprays in hidden places.
  • Frequent Use of Inhalants: Chronic abusers may frequently use inhalants, often in larger amounts or over a longer period than intended.
  • Strong Chemical Odor: An unusual chemical smell on the person’s breath or clothes can indicate recent inhalant use.
  • Increased Risk-Taking Behavior: Abuse of inhalants can lead to reckless actions due to altered judgment and inhibition.

Psychological and Emotional Signs and Symptoms

Emotionally, a person with inhalant use disorder may show the following signs:

  • Confusion: Inhalant users often have difficulty thinking clearly and may appear confused.
  • Inability to Concentrate: Inhalants can affect cognitive functioning, leading to problems with attention and focus.
  • Signs of Depression: Inhalant abuse can lead to feelings of sadness, loss of interest in activities, and other signs of depression.

Detecting inhalant abuse is a step towards getting the person the help they need. Substance abuse treatment centers offer programs specifically designed for inhalant addiction. These treatment programs can help individuals stop using inhalants and regain control over their lives.

As with any substance use disorder, early detection and intervention are key to successful recovery. If you or a loved one needs help, don’t hesitate to reach out. Call us today at (323) 307-7997 or send us a message from our contact page to schedule your consultation. We’re here to assist you on the road to recovery.

Risk Factors for Inhalant Use Disorder

Three factors can increase the likelihood of an individual developing an inhalant use disorder. These factors can be broadly classified into environmental, individual, and genetic or family history factors.

  1. Environmental Factors: The environment in which a person grows up, or lives can significantly influence their risk of abusing inhalants. Some environmental risk factors include:
    • Peer Pressure: The influence of friends or acquaintances who are already abusing inhalants can increase the likelihood of someone starting to use these substances.
    • Easy Access to Inhalant Products: Many commonly abused inhalants, like aerosol sprays and spray paints, are easily accessible in everyday settings. This easy access can increase the risk of developing an inhalant use disorder.
  2. Individual Factors: Certain personal characteristics and experiences can also contribute to the risk of developing an inhalant use disorder:
    • Curiosity and Desire for New Experiences: Especially common in adolescents, the desire to experiment can lead to trying inhalants.
    • Mental Disorders: Individuals with pre-existing mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety, may be more likely to abuse inhalants as a form of self-medication.
  3. Genetic and Family History Factors: Genetics and family history can play a substantial role in the development of an inhalant use disorder:
    • Family History of Substance Use Disorders: Individuals who have a family history of substance abuse are at a higher risk of developing an inhalant use disorder. The risk increases if the family environment normalizes or does not discourage substance use.

Understanding the Cycle of Inhalant Use Disorder

The development of an inhalant use disorder often follows a cyclical pattern. Understanding this cycle can help in identifying the problem and seeking appropriate intervention.

1. Initiation Phase

The cycle begins with the initiation phase, also called the “First Use.” This is often motivated by curiosity, peer pressure, or a desire to escape problems. The person may first try inhalants because they are easily accessible, and the effects are immediate.

2. Regular Use Phase

The initiation phase is often followed by a period of regular use: Escaping Problems. The person may start using inhalants more frequently as a coping mechanism to escape personal issues or distress. This can lead to an increase in tolerance, where more of the substance is needed to achieve the desired effects.

3. Dependency Phase

Regular use can lead to dependency: Physical and Psychological Dependence. The person may start to feel a strong need to use inhalants, experiencing withdrawal symptoms when they try to stop. This is a sign of dependency and indicates that substance abuse has transitioned into a disorder.

Consequences and Negative Feedback Loop

Continued use of inhalants often leads to severe consequences:

  • Health Problems and Other Consequences: These can include serious physical health problems, like damage to the nervous system, and other consequences, like poor academic or work performance.
  • Negative Feedback Loop: These problems often lead the person to use more inhalants to cope, creating a destructive cycle. This negative feedback loop can make it challenging to break free from the disorder.

Health Consequences of Inhalant Abuse

Inhalant abuse, often overlooked in the broader discussion of substance abuse, poses serious health risks and can have devastating effects on an individual’s well-being.

The misuse of substances such as aerosols, gases, and solvents can lead to both immediate and long-term health consequences, affecting nearly all organ systems in the body.

From neurological impairments to organ damage, the risks associated with inhalant abuse are vast and varied.

Short-term Health Effects

  • Dizziness: Chronic inhalant abusers can experience disorientation and loss of coordination due to the effects on the central nervous system.
  • Headaches: Inhalant abusers often suffer from frequent, sometimes severe headaches as the abused inhalants impact the blood vessels in the brain.
  • Fainting: The use of inhalants can lead to a sudden drop in blood pressure, causing the user to faint.

Long-term Health Effects

  • Brain Damage: Long-term inhalant abuse can lead to brain damage, impairing cognitive functions and memory. Inhalants like toluene and nitrous oxide are especially damaging.
  • Cardiac Issues: Chronic abuse of inhalants can result in heart problems, including an increased risk of sudden sniffing death due to the disruption of the heart’s rhythm.
  • Damage to Other Organs: Chronic inhalant abusers can develop serious organ damage, particularly to the liver and kidneys, due to the toxic properties of the inhaled substances.

Inhalant Use Disorder and Co-occurring Disorders

  • Depression: The mental health services administration often sees a link between inhalant use and depressive disorders, which may result from the detrimental effects of the drugs on the brain’s chemistry.
  • Anxiety: Anxiety disorders are common in people who abuse inhalants, potentially as a side effect of the substances or as a co-existing condition.
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health: Inhalant users are at risk of developing other substance use disorders, as the same factors that contribute to inhalant abuse – such as genetic predisposition or a desire to self-medicate psychological pain – can also lead to the abuse of other substances.

Inhalant Use Disorder in Adolescents

Vulnerability and Developmental Factors

Young people are particularly vulnerable to inhalant use disorder. Their brains are still developing, and exposure to harmful chemicals can lead to long-term damage.

Impact on Physical and Mental Health

  • Stunted Growth: Chronic abuse of inhalants during adolescence can lead to physical development issues, including stunted growth.
  • Learning Difficulties: Abused inhalants can impact cognitive function, leading to difficulties in learning and academic performance.
  • Mental Health Issues: The abuse of inhalants can exacerbate or lead to mental disorders in adolescents, including depression, anxiety, and other psychiatric comorbidities.

Prevention and Intervention Strategies

  • Education: One of the primary prevention strategies involves educating adolescents about the dangers of inhalants and substance abuse.
  • Promoting Healthy Alternatives: Encouraging participation in healthy activities and interests can provide adolescents with positive alternatives to drug use.
  • Community Involvement: Involving parents, schools, and communities in prevention efforts is crucial for addressing this issue. Health and Human Services, along with the Mental Health Services Administration, can provide resources and programs for prevention and intervention.

The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual provides guidelines for diagnosing and treating inhalant use disorder. Treatments may involve mental health services, substance abuse treatment, addiction treatment, and support groups. Early detection and intervention are key to preventing the long-term health consequences associated with chronic inhalant abuse.

Diagnosis and Assessment of Inhalant Use Disorder

Diagnostic Criteria and Screening Tools

Healthcare providers use tools developed by the American Psychiatric Association to diagnose this disorder

  • DSM-5 Criteria: The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association, is the most commonly used tool for diagnosing mental disorders, including inhalant use disorder.

    The criteria include harmful use of inhalants, withdrawal symptoms, the presence of cravings, and neglecting social, occupational, or recreational activities.

    The DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for inhalant use disorder include:

    • Recent intentional use or short-term, high-dose exposure to volatile inhalants (excluding anesthetic gases and short-acting vasodilators)
    • Clinically significant maladaptive behavior or psychologic changes (e.g., belligerence, assaultiveness, apathy, impaired judgment, impaired social or occupational functioning) that developed during, or shortly after, use of or exposure to volatile inhalants
    • Two (or more) of the following signs developing during, or shortly after, inhalant use or exposure: dizziness, nystagmus, incoordination, slurred speech, unsteady gait, lethargy, depressed reflexes, psychomotor retardation, tremor, generalized muscle weakness, blurred vision or diplopia, stupor or coma, or euphoria
    • The symptoms are not due to a general medical condition and are not better accounted for by another mental disorder
  • Substance Use Disorders Screening Tools: These questionnaires and interviews, like the Substance Use Disorders Diagnostic Schedule (SUDDS), ask about specific behaviors and experiences related to inhalant use.
  • Drug Use Monitoring Tools: These involve systematic tracking of a person’s drug use, including types of inhalants used, frequency, and associated behaviors. This can include school or workplace performance and interpersonal relationships.

Challenges in Diagnosing Inhalant Use Disorder

  • Short Detection Window: Inhalants often leave the body quickly, so traditional drug tests may not detect their use.
  • Stigma and Concealment: Inhalant users often face stigma and might deny or hide their substance abuse.
  • Variety of Inhalants: The vast array of substances that can be used as inhalants make detection and diagnosis more complex.

Comprehensive Assessment Approaches

  • Physical Health Assessment: Review physical health, noting signs of chronic inhalant abuse such as generalized muscle weakness or symptoms of acute inhalant intoxication.
  • Mental Health Evaluation: Screening for co-occurring mental health disorders, which often accompany inhalant use disorder, such as depression or anxiety.
  • Social and Environmental Assessment: Evaluating the person’s social environment, which can affect both the development and treatment of inhalant use disorder, including family support, community resources, and access to health services.

Treatment Approaches for Inhalant Use Disorder

The pathway to recovery from inhalant use disorder can be complex, given the wide variety of inhalants and the particular difficulties of inhalant withdrawal. It often requires a combination of detoxification, therapy, medication, and supportive care to help the person stop using inhalants and rebuild their life.

  • Detoxification and Withdrawal Management

    • Medical Detoxification: Under the supervision of healthcare professionals, the individual is helped to stop using inhalants safely. This process manages withdrawal symptoms which can include restlessness, anxiety, and tremors.
    • Psychological Support During Detox: Alongside physical detox, psychological support helps manage cravings and emotional distress that can arise during the detox process.
  • Behavioral Therapies

    • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): This approach helps individuals identify and change destructive patterns of behavior. It assists in developing strategies to avoid inhalants and handle cravings.
    • Motivational Enhancement Therapy (MET): A counseling approach designed to enhance motivation to change and engage in treatment.
  • Pharmacological Interventions

    • Medications to Manage Withdrawal: Currently, there are no specific medications for inhalant withdrawal. However, certain symptoms like anxiety or insomnia may be treated with medication under a healthcare provider’s supervision.
    • Treatment of Co-Occurring Mental Health Conditions: If a co-existing mental health disorder is identified, appropriate psychiatric medication might be administered.

Supportive Care and Relapse Prevention Strategies

  • Support Groups: Groups like Narcotics Anonymous can provide emotional support and practical advice from people who have experienced similar struggles.
  • Skills Training: Individuals can learn coping strategies, stress management techniques, and skills for maintaining a drug-free lifestyle.

Recovery and Aftercare

The journey toward recovery doesn’t end with the cessation of inhalant use. Ensuring a sustainable recovery often requires a comprehensive aftercare plan, supportive services, and proactive strategies for maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

Importance of a Comprehensive Aftercare Plan

  • Continuing Therapy: Ongoing counseling can provide long-term support and help manage any challenges that arise during recovery.
  • Support Group Participation: Regular attendance at support group meetings can provide continuous peer support and a forum to discuss recovery strategies.

Supportive Services and Resources for Recovery

  • Treatment Centers: These provide structured environments that support recovery and often offer a range of services, from medical care to counseling.
  • Online Resources: Websites and online support groups can provide information and community support during recovery.

Relapse Prevention and Building a Healthy Lifestyle

  • Healthy Hobbies: Engaging in recreational activities can help divert attention from cravings and provide a sense of fulfillment and joy.
  • Social Support Networks: Building strong relationships with friends and family members can offer emotional support and assist in maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

A robust treatment program for inhalant use disorder, from detoxification to aftercare, can significantly improve outcomes for individuals struggling with this challenging condition.

Preventing Inhalant Use Disorder

Education and Awareness Campaigns: Education is key to prevention. This includes educating individuals about the dangers of inhalant use and promoting healthy alternatives.

Parental and Community Involvement: Parents and communities can play a crucial role in preventing inhalant use disorder. This can involve keeping open lines of communication with young people and promoting healthy behaviors.

Regulation and Control of Inhalant Products: Regulating the sale of products that can be used as inhalants can also help prevent inhalant use disorder.

Take the First Step with NuView Treatment Center

Inhalant use disorder can be challenging to navigate alone, but you don’t have to. At NuView Treatment Center, we’re here to guide you through every step of your recovery journey. Our dedicated team of professionals understands the unique challenges posed by inhalant use disorder, and we’re committed to providing personalized, comprehensive treatment plans that address your specific needs.

Whether you’re in the throes of addiction or seeking aftercare support to maintain recovery, our wide range of services – from medical detoxification to cognitive-behavioral therapy and from supportive care to relapse prevention strategies – is designed with one goal in mind: to help you build a healthier, substance-free life.

Remember, seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness. And every step you take toward recovery, no matter how small, is a step in the right direction.

Don’t wait to reclaim your life. Contact NuView Treatment Center today, and let’s take the first step together. Call us today at (323) 307-7997 or send us a message from our contact page to schedule your friendly and personalized consultation. Take control of your future and embark on a journey toward a brighter, healthier life.


Inhalant Use Disorder is a serious problem that can lead to severe physical and mental health issues. It often begins in adolescence and can involve a variety of commonly available substances. Early intervention and treatment are crucial to preventing the negative consequences of this disorder.

NIDA. 2023, January 23. What is the scope of inhalant use in the United States? Retrieved from on 2023, May 22

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition

Latest posts

Share this post


Leave a comment

Written By: Linda Whiteside

Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor who has been providing mental health services for over 10 years.

Medically reviewed by: Dr. Ryan Peterson

Went to medical school at The George Washington University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C.

Read More

Addiction & Recovery

Did you know that we are always here for you 24/7?

You don't have to try to cope with life and addiction all on your own. Reach out to us now, no matter the time of day or night, even if you're not sure what you want to do yet and just need someone to listen.

We understand what you're going through and we can help you or a loved one survive addiction and find happiness in your life again.

Fill out the form below and we will contact you soon or call us any time at (323) 307-7997.
Contact Form - Blog

Are you or a loved one struggling with addiction? We can help!

Our advisors are waiting for your call: (323) 307-7997

Ready to get Help?