Do Inhalants Cause Brain Damage?

Short- & Long-Term Inhalants Effects on the Brain

If you’ve ever worked in a manufacturer’s legal department, you’re probably familiar with discussions on how to avoid liability for damages done by someone’s using products in an inappropriate manner. People have used shoes to hammer nails, attempted to pry open food cans with screwdrivers, and picked up carving knives to extend their reach for items on high shelves.

A much more common and decidedly unfunny product misuse is when glue, gasoline, or the nitrous oxide propellant in an aerosol can is used as an inhalant—a source of fumes inhaled in close quarters to generate a quick high. Kids as young as eleven or twelve frequently develop the habit, sometimes suffocating after covering their faces with chemical-soaked rags, sometimes fatally injuring themselves through reckless intoxicated behavior.

Yes, Inhalants Can Hurt the Brain

More insidious is the long-term brain damage that repeated “huffing” of inhalants can cause. Paint, glue, and many other sniffable compounds contain chemical solvents that may induce lifelong cognitive impairment. All inhalants reduce oxygen flow to the brain (in fact, lowered oxygen levels are largely responsible for the light-headed euphoric sensations associated with inhalant abuse), and brain cells die without oxygen. The myelin sheathing surrounding the brain’s nerve fibers also deteriorates, slowing the transmission of nerve impulses, breaking down mental and physical ability to function.

Regular inhalant use may kill off enough brain cells to leave brain function permanently damaged, and young adolescents are at particular risk because their brains are still growing and developing. (It’s not a danger only for the youngest demographic, either: people as old as 25 may still have brain growth in progress.)

And as with any harmful drug, inhalant use can lead to the brain disease of addiction disorder, which means potential withdrawal symptoms (increased heart rate, insomnia, sometimes hallucinations) that stress the brain even more as it struggles to regulate body functions.

There Are No Harmless Inhalants

A popular misconception is that “low-toxin” inhalants such as nitrous oxide are safe. Wrong. Nitrous oxide and ether helped pioneer the discovery of medical anesthesia—because they were popular recreational inhalants among upper-class adults two centuries ago, and because it was observed that people who inhaled them felt no pain from minor injuries. Outside of a controlled environment, potential for not-so-minor injuries (to body and brain) is enormous. And the risks of addiction, and of oxygen starvation causing brain damage, remain.

The misconception of nitrous oxide being safe is partly due to its still being used as a painkiller in dental and other medical procedures. But the version administered in a dentist’s office is carefully formulated and regulated for safety, including dilution with extra oxygen to ensure the patient’s brain continues to receive an adequate oxygen supply. When used recreationally, nitrous oxide is obtained through different channels: bought from unregulated street dealers, or from auto-supply stores in tanks meant for vehicle engines, or in small propellant tanks pried from aerosol food cans. (Whipped cream cans have become such a common source of inhalant nitrous oxide that “whippits” is now a popular slang term for the drug itself.)

Danger Signals of Inhalant Use

Your child or loved one may have an inhalant abuse problem if:

  • They frequently seem intoxicated, especially without alcohol odors or other signs of well-known drugs
  • Their sleeping habits, eating habits, or daily moods change without apparent reason
  • They have frequent runny noses or other respiratory symptoms for no obvious cause
  • They break out in facial rashes apart from known allergies or illness
  • They complain that their face or throat feels cold, even in warm weather (inhaling from propellant canisters may have a “chilling” effect)
  • You notice unexplained chemical odors, containers, or stains, especially on clothing or breath
  • You find empty chemical containers or whipped cream cans (especially cracked whipped cream cans) of unknown origin
  • Paint/glue/nitrous oxide containers you’ve purchased go missing, or seem to diminish in content without your using them

If inhalants have already caused brain damage, more serious symptoms may appear:

  • Significant personality changes
  • Major forgetfulness
  • Very sluggish reflexes
  • Obvious impairment to cognitive abilities

But don’t wait for the problem to reach that stage—by then, the damage may be irreversible. If you suspect inhalant abuse, confront the issue immediately and seek professional help. Be warned that your regular doctor may not recognize inhalant abuse (many general practitioners are unfamiliar with it) from physical symptoms alone, so state specifically what you suspect, and request referral to a specialist if possible. Seek out licensed therapy and addiction treatment as well.

Let Pine Grove Be Your Resource

Besides causing direct damage, inhalants often become gateways to more addictive and dangerous drugs. At Pine Grove, we treat all aspects of any drug problem by treating the whole person. We have residential and outpatient programs for all ages and all addictions—including not only drugs, but other common addictions such as technology and sex. We also provide services tailored to children and to people with psychiatric illness or autism. Contact us today to learn how we can help you and your loved ones.

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