Inhalant Effects

People use inhalants to feel excitement, altered senses or a euphoric rush. These pleasurable effects are quickly followed by side effects such as stupor, lightheadedness and agitation. The substances can also cause life-threatening overdose symptoms.
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People abuse inhalants for a cheap and easy way to get high. The legality of the substances may lead some people to believe they’re less risky than other substances of abuse. But inhalants can cause serious health problems.

Risks of specific chemicals in inhalants include:

Amyl and Butyl Nitrite

Also known as poppers and snappers, amyl nitrite and butyl nitrite can weaken the immune system, injure blood cells and cause heart problems.


Benzene, a chemical found in gasoline, can cause bone marrow injury, weakened immune system and reproductive problems. It can also increase the risk of leukemia.

Butane and Propane

These chemicals in lighter fluids and hair spray can cause burn injuries and heart problems.


This chemical found in refrigerants and aerosol sprays can cause heart problems, breathing problems and liver damage.

Methylene Chloride

Found in paint thinners and degreasers, methylene chloride can cause heart problems and blood cell damage.

Nitrous Oxide and Hexane

Nitrous oxide, commonly known as laughing gas or whippits, can cause oxygen deprivation, sensation loss, distorted perception, spasms, blackouts and heart problems. These symptoms can also occur after someone inhales hexane, a chemical found in glues.


Toluene is a chemical in gasoline, paint thinners and correction fluid. It can cause brain damage, impaired thinking, coordination loss, hearing and vision problems, kidney damage and liver damage.


Abusing trichloroethylene, a chemical in spot removers and degreasers, can cause heart problems, liver cirrhosis, reproduction problems, and hearing and vision damage.

All inhalants can shock the body and make the heart stop beating. Inhalant abuse is also associated with other long-term risks.

Short-Term Effects of Inhalants

Ways to use inhalants include sniffing, snorting, bagging or huffing. Within seconds of using an inhalant, people feel excitement. They may be unable to stop smiling or laughing. The substances also disrupt thinking. Some people experience hallucinations and delusions.

They also feel side effects similar to those of alcohol, such as slurred speech, coordination loss and dizziness.

Other short-term side effects of inhalants include:

  • Lightheadedness
  • Trouble breathing
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Confusion
  • Drowsiness
  • Muscle weakness
  • Slowed reflexes
  • Stupor
  • Headache

Nitrites, a type of inhalant used primarily to enhance sexual pleasure, cause unique side effects. These drugs can make people feel hot and flushed.

Some research suggests nitrites weaken the immune system. People who use nitrites are also more likely to practice unsafe sex and contract infectious diseases such as HIV, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Inhalant Overdose

A single use of an inhalant can cause death. The drugs deprive the body of oxygen, forcing the heart to beat faster. This leads to rapid and irregular heartbeat, increasing the risk of heart failure. Abrupt heart failure caused by inhalant use is referred to as sudden sniffing death syndrome.

Inhalant use is also associated with other causes of death, including:

  • Asphyxiation from prolonged oxygen deprivation
  • Choking on vomit
  • Coma caused by brain damage
  • Convulsions and seizures caused by brain damage
  • Suffocation from plastic bags or other objects used during inhalation

Signs of an inhalant overdose include chest pain, dysphoria, labored breathing or lack of response to stimuli. Individuals experiencing an inhalant overdose should call 911 immediately.

People who abuse inhalants are also more likely to die from accidental injuries. The substances cannot be consumed safely.

Long-Term Effects of Inhalants

In addition to serious short-term risks, inhalants can cause long-term health problems. An inhalant overdose can cause permanent damage to the brain, heart and other organs. Repeated use also increases the risk of chronic health problems.

The drugs can cause addiction, a brain disease characterized by compulsive drug-seeking behavior despite health and social consequences. People addicted to inhalants don’t recognize the damage they’re doing when they use the substances.

Other long-term effects of inhalants include:

  • Hearing loss
  • Reduced oxygen flow in the blood
  • Increased risk of leukemia
  • Personality changes
  • Memory problems
  • Kidney stones and kidney damage
  • Liver damage
  • Weakened lungs
  • Muscle deterioration
  • Recurring numbness or tingling
  • Severe rashes

Regular inhalant use destroys nerves in the brain. This causes problems with cognition, movement, vision and hearing. Severe damage can lead to dementia. The substances also cause irreversible damage to other organs, according to the Center for Substance Abuse Research.

Inhalants cause short-term pleasurable effects followed by intense discomfort. A single use of an inhalant can cause a life-threatening overdose, and repeated use can cause addiction and long-term health problems that may be permanent.

Medical Disclaimer: aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

Chris Elkins, MA
Senior Content Writer,
Chris Elkins worked as a journalist for three years and was published by multiple newspapers and online publications. Since 2015, he’s written about health-related topics, interviewed addiction experts and authored stories of recovery. Chris has a master’s degree in strategic communication and a graduate certificate in health communication.

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