Airborne consumption of chemicals such as glues and sprays is relatively common in adolescents of low socioeconomic status, and can be very harmful.

In this article we will see what inhalant drugs are, what types there are and what the symptoms are and the risks of intoxication and abuse of these substances.

What are inhalant drugs?

We speak of inhalant drugs to refer to a series of chemical compounds with commercial or industrial uses (such as gasoline, glues or solvents) that are sometimes inhaled because their consumption has psychoactive effects related to their depressant activity on the central nervous system.

Although not usually associated with addiction and pharmacological dependence, inhalant drugs can be very harmful to the abuser, even if only occasionally: excessive doses can cause death, and chronic use is associated with permanent physical injury and psychological distress.

Inhalant drug use is most common among adolescents (especially between the ages of 9 and 15) of low socioeconomic status. These young people often inhale the products in groups, and choose them because of their low price and ease of access compared to other psychoactive substances.

These products are consumed by various methods depending on their physical characteristics: inhaling them inside a bag, wetting rags and inhaling them through the nose and mouth, spraying them directly into these pathways (as is the case with aerosols), etc.

Symptoms of poisoning

The use of inhalant drugs has depressive effects on the central nervous system, which is why their symptoms and signs are similar to those that characterize substances such as alcohol, opiates or drugs of the class of anxiolytics , sedatives and hypnotics, among which we find benzodiazepines and barbiturates.

Thus, according to the DSM, a person can be considered intoxicated with inhalants when contact with these substances causes psychological changes (e.g. aggression, decreased motivation, impaired judgment, deficits in social interaction, and decreased academic or work performance) and at least two of the following signs :

  • Dizziness, vertigo and balance disorders
  • Uncontrollable, repetitive eye movements (nystagmus)
  • Motor coordination problems
  • Speech articulation disorders
  • Unsteady gait
  • Tiredness, fatigue , sleepiness and lethargy
  • Impaired reflex movements
  • Psychomotor delay
  • Tremors
  • Widespread muscle weakness
  • Blurred or double vision (diplopia)
  • Descent of consciousness to stupor and even coma
  • Feelings of euphoria

Other possible symptoms of intoxication are perceptual alterations and hallucinations in visual, auditory or tactile modes, delusional ideas, the presence of intense anxiety and distortions in time perception. When the depression of the central nervous system is very intense death may occur due to cardiac or respiratory arrest .

In addition, the abuse of inhalant drugs promotes the development of psychological disorders such as depression, anxiety disorders or acute psychosis. In the long term, there may be a chronification of the cognitive alterations we have mentioned, as well as permanent lesions in the central and peripheral nervous system , in the liver or in the kidneys.

However, inhalant drugs have a very low addictive potential. Cases in which the criteria for the diagnosis of pharmacological dependence are met are rare and no true abstinence syndrome (the main factor determining addiction) has been identified associated with the interruption of the consumption of this type of substance.

Types of volatile substances

There are many commercial and industrial products that are susceptible to being used as inhalant drugs. Although the reinforcing effects of all of them are similar, falling into the category of depressant substances, they differ in their side effect profile and in the possible physical and psychological sequelae associated with their consumption.

1. Methyl alcohol (methanol)

Methyl alcohol is a chemical compound used to make products such as glues, antifreeze and solvents. It is also the alcohol with the simplest structure. Methanol abuse is associated with the appearance of physical weakness, headaches and blindness between 6 and 30 hours after consumption, and can cause death.

2. Ketones

The most relevant inhalant in this class is acetone or propanone, which is used as a component of plastics, solvents, glues, adhesives, degreasers, medicines… Its consumption causes a characteristic and severe irritation of the skin, mucous membranes and eyes; this phenomenon has been called “inhaler syndrome” .

3. Esters

Esters, such as ethyl acetate or ethanoate (used mainly as a solvent), have similar effects to acetone: they very often cause the irritation characteristic of inhaler syndrome, although not as severely as in the previous case.

4. Anesthetics

The anesthetic most commonly used as an inhaled drug is trichloroethylene or TCE, which is also used to make solvents, degreasers and stain removers, among other products. Trichloroethylene can cause permanent damage to the liver , kidneys and nerves , especially the cranial and more particularly the optical.

5. Aliphatic hydrocarbons

Aliphatic hydrocarbons such as hexane are found in gasoline, in solvents, and in glues and adhesives. The abuse of these potential inhalants causes anemia, weakness and atrophy in the muscles, sensory deficits (mainly in tactile perception) and structural deterioration of the nervous system.

6. Aromatic hydrocarbons

Among this type of hydrocarbons, it is worth mentioning toluene, a gasoline component, glues, solvents and degreasers. In this case the symptoms of severe intoxication include nausea, stomach pain, lack of appetite, tremors, numbness of consciousness, jaundice and permanent damage to the liver, kidneys and nervous system.