Topic Overview

Inhalants are substances that produce chemical vapours that, when inhaled, result in mind-altering effects. The term inhalant is used because these substances are rarely, if ever, used by any other means. These substances are common household, industrial, or medical products that most people don't think of as drugs because they aren't meant to be used in that way.

Inhalants commonly used include:

  • Solvents (such as paint thinners and degreasers).
  • Gases (such as whipping cream aerosols).
  • Nitrites (such as a prescription medicine called amyl nitrite).

When inhalants are breathed, they cause alcohol-like effects: slurred speech, lack of coordination, and dizziness. A person can become light-headed and may have hallucinations and delusions. The effects last only a few minutes. After heavy use of an inhalant, a person may have a headache and feel drowsy for several hours. A person who inhales the substance can lose consciousness and die.

Aerosols can be sprayed directly into the nose or mouth. Nitrous oxide can be inhaled directly from balloons. Several terms are used for the way inhalants are breathed into the lungs, including:

  • Sniffing or snorting, when fumes are inhaled from a container.
  • Bagging, when fumes are inhaled from substances sprayed or deposited inside a plastic bag.
  • Huffing, when a soaked rag is placed in the mouth or held to the face for inhalation.

Long-term health problems, such as brain, liver, kidney, blood, or bone marrow damage, can occur from inhaling some substances. Long-term use of inhalants also causes:

  • Weight loss.
  • Muscle weakness and lack of coordination.
  • Disorientation and inattentiveness.
  • Irritability and depression.

Some of these problems may go away when you stop using inhalants. Others may never go away.

Inhalants often aren't detected with urine or blood drug screening tests because they have usually been eliminated from the body by the time the test is done.

Signs of use

  • Chemical odours on clothing or breath
  • Paint or other stains on face, hands, or clothes
  • Markers in pockets
  • Empty containers or discarded soaked rags or clothing hidden in the trash
  • Red eyes, irritability, frequent headaches, drunk appearance, and slurred speech
  • Nausea or loss of appetite
  • Sores around the mouth


ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Patrice Burgess, MD - Family Medicine
Brian D. O'Brien, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Peter Monti, PhD - Alcohol and Addiction

Current as ofFebruary 20, 2015