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Inhalants may be perfectly legal when used as intended — as paint thinners and glue, for instance — but that doesn't make them any less dangerous than more well-known drugs. Inhalants can kill.

Think "drugs", and what comes to mind? Chances are that you're now making a mental list that includes marijuana, cocaine, crack, ecstasy, heroin, speed, and LSD. Maybe cigarettes and alcohol have made the cut, too. Though you've probably heard of glue sniffing, we're assuming that you're much less likely to think of items like hair spray, deodorant, gasoline, paint thinner, and nail polish remover as drugs. 

Yet one in four US children will have used substances exactly like this — known as inhalants — to get high. On purpose. By the time they're in eighth grade. No middle schooler will automatically arouse parental suspicion if they're in possession of corrector fluid, felt-tip pens, glue, or deodorant, but more than 2.6 million youngsters aged 12 to 17 will experiment with these and similar items as drugs. 

The fact that inhalants are, when used as directed, perfectly legal makes them dangerous not only because that means they are easy to get. It's not that difficult to see how a middle or high schooler could be shown what inhalants can do in a school restroom and then discover that these things can make them feel good — all while being completely unaware of the dangers. While some will stick with occasional use, others will become full-on inhalant addicts who develop tolerance, dependence, and when they stop, withdrawal. 

Yes, inhalants can cause a high, much like alcohol. Feeling "drunk", complete with losing inhibitions, suppressing difficult emotions troubling a person, being a bit drowsy, and feeling like taking risks may be among the effects of inhalants a young person is actually after. In the long term, they can do damage to nearly all organs, from the brain and heart to the lungs, kidneys, and liver. They can cause serious burns and induce abdominal pain, nosebleeds, seizures, and appetite loss even in the short term. 

Inhalants can also kill, however. And it doesn't take long-term abuse and addiction to make that happen. Here's how. 

How inhalants can kill

  • Respiratory arrest — the person stops breathing. Inhalants can depress the central nervous system, slowing bodily functions down.
  • Asphyxiation — inhalant abuse can deprive the user of oxygen, as the lungs are instead taken up with the chemicals in question. It is also possible to choke on one's vomit after inhalant abuse. 
  • Seizures that can lead to death can occur. 
  • Inhalant abuse has been known to cause coma, leading to death. 
  • Being intoxicated after inhalant use can lead to risky behavior, sometimes triggered by the hallucinations some users experience. This can, in turn, cause fatalities in all sorts of ways, because a user runs into oncoming traffic, for instance. 
Most of the around 200 deaths that result from inhalant abuse in the US each year are, however, caused by something called sudden sniffing death syndrome. In this case, the addict or user experiences sudden heart failure after the drug caused dangerous arrhythmia. 

While the risk of permanent and serious health consequences and death goes up when a user abuses inhalants frequently over a long period of time, it is important to understand that not only those who have been using inhalants for a long time are at risk of dying. These causes of death can strike even people who are trying inhalants for the very first time. 

What serious medical consequences can different inhalants have?

Over a thousand different substances can be used as inhalants, and the risks users expose themselves to are different in each case. Let's take a look at the potential risks of commonly-abused inhalants:

  • Gasoline is the inhalant most likely to become fatal, being responsible for 45 percent of inhalant-related deaths. Air fresheners follow, at 26 percent, while and either propane or butane lead to an estimated 11 percent of total inhalant-induced fatalities, one study found. 
  • Gasoline abuse can additionally lead to leukemia, bone marrow disease, and immune system disorders. 
  • Butane and propane carry a high risk of sudden sniffing death syndrome, respiratory shut down, and burns. 
  • Trichloroethylene, a chemical present in stain removers among other products, can cause deafness, cirrhosis, infertility, and sudden sniffing death syndrome. 
  • The freon found in some fridges causes liver damage as well as carrying the potential of sudden sniffing death syndrome and choking. 
  • Laughing gas can kill because it restricts oxygen flow, but it can also lead to heart complications.
  • Paint thinners can lead to arrhythmia. 
  • Toluene, present in paint thinners and correction fluids, among others, is known to cause brain damage, liver and kidney disease, deafness, and vision loss.

A final word

Going by seemingly innocuous names like "rush", "gluey", and "huff", inhalants are insidious drugs precisely because they also have other, perfectly everyday, uses that wouldn't worry anyone. They should be on the radar of all parents of middle and high schoolers, right alongside drugs a child would need a drug dealer to obtain. The fact that they can cause lasting health damage and even kill should make it abundantly clear that inhalants require more attention. 

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