Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome can have devastating consequences. Nearly a quarter of people who try inhalants will die from it. Even first-time inhalant users are at risk. The effects of this syndrome are very serious. Damage to the brain and body can become permanent. Its especially important for parents to educate themselves about inhalants. Children are by far the largest age group that uses them.
Why Is Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome So Dangerous?
Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome isn’t just a story that teachers make up to stop kids from huffing glue. This syndrome is very serious and deadly. It occurs when the use of an inhalant leads to fatal heart failure. This can happen within minutes. Even a single session of inhalant abuse may lead to death. A person in perfect health is just as at risk. Absolutely anyone can be affected. It doesn’t matter if they’re using an inhalant for the first, tenth, or hundredth time. Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome is most common in people who use these products as inhalants:
- Aerosol chemicals
- Air conditioning coolant
Inhalants can affect the body in other deadly ways as well. Fatal dangers include:
- Asphyxiation: this can happen after repeated use in a short period of time. The fumes don’t leave enough room for oxygen in the lungs.
- Suffocation: this occurs when air is blocked from entering the lungs. It is most common when fumes are inhaled from a plastic bag placed over the head.
- Convulsions and seizures can also lead to death.
What Is an Inhalant?
Inhalants are chemical vapors that cause intoxication when breathed in. This can be done through the nose or mouth. Many times, inhalants are common household items. People use them as a cheap alternative to other drugs. They can be bought easily and legally.
When used correctly, such as for cleaning, inhalants are safe. However, when abused, they are very dangerous. The four main inhalant types are volatile solvents, gases, aerosols, and nitrites. Nitrites are used to increase sexual performance and pleasure. The rest are supposed to alter moods and result in a high. Here is a breakdown of the four inhalant groups:
- Volatile solvents: liquids that turn into a gas at room temperature. Examples include paint thinners and removers, gasoline, glues, and felt-tip marker liquids.
- Gases: these include medical gases like ether and nitrous oxide. Other examples are butane lighters, propane tanks, whipped cream canisters that contain nitrous oxide, and refrigerants.
- Aerosol sprays: these include spray paint, deodorant, hairspray, cooking oil sprays, and static cling sprays.
- Nitrites: these include cyclohexyl nitrite, amyl nitrite, and isobutyl nitrite. Street names for nitrites are “poppers”, “snappers”, “bolt”, “bullet”, “quicksilver”, and “whiteout”.
How Are Inhalants Abused?
Inhalants can be breathed in through the nose or mouth, usually by:
- Sniffing or snorting: when fumes are inhaled straight from a container.
- Huffing: the use of an inhalant-soaked rag stuffed in the mouth.
- Bagging: inhaling fumes from chemicals sprayed into a plastic bag.
- Whip-its: the use of a balloon or canister for inhaling nitrous oxide.
- Spraying aerosols directly into the nose or mouth.
Can Inhalants Cause Brain Damage?
The answer is yes, they definitely can. Inhaled chemicals enter the bloodstream almost right away. This means that they reach the brain very quickly. Brain activity slows down, resulting in a high. Nitrites are the only chemicals that behave differently. They cause blood vessels to expand and relax. Either way, the health risks are dangerous. Inhalants have short and long-term effects on the brain. With continued abuse, some of these can become permanent.
Short-Term Effects on the Brain Can Include:
- A “drunk” feeling
- Slurred speech
- Lack of coordination
- Extreme happiness or giddiness
- Convulsions or seizures (can result in death)
- Temporary hearing loss
- Loss of inhibition and control
- Severe mood swings
- Violent behavior and belligerence
Regular Inhalant Abuse and the Brain
The high that users get from inhalants only lasts a few minutes. Many people use them repeatedly in one session to make the feeling last longer. This is extremely dangerous. Repeated use in a short period of time can result in loss of consciousness. It is also even more likely to end in death. Abusing inhalants long-term allows some of the chemicals to build up in the brain. Over time, this can cause serious damage. Long-term effects can lead to:
- Damage to nerve fibers
- Muscle spasms and tremors
- Trouble with walking, bending, and talking
- Effects similar to multiple sclerosis disease
- Damage to brain cells
- Lack of oxygen to the brain (hypoxia)
- Memory problems
- Convulsions or seizures (can result in death)
- Difficulty learning new things
- Loss of sense of smell
- Slow and clumsy movements
- Depression and irritability
- Loss of brain tissue
- Impaired thinking
- Loss of coordination
- Hearing and vision loss
How Do Inhalants Affect the Body?
The brain isn’t the only organ affected by inhalants. Serious harm can also be done to the rest of the body. This damage is often especially severe in children. Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome is one of the worst risks of all. In fact, instant death can happen for a few reasons. Different parts of the body may experience short and long-term effects.
Short-Term Effects on the Body Can Include
- Instant death (from SSDS, asphyxiation, suffocation, choking, poisoning)
- Muscle weakness
- Abdominal pain
- Tingling of hands and feet
- Limb spasms
- Loss of sensation
Long-Term Effects on the Body Can Include
- Weakened immune system
- Damage to red blood cells
- Increased risk of leukemia (a kind of cancer)
- Reproductive system problems
- Problems with breathing
- Liver damage
- Weight loss
- Kidney damage
- Liver disease
- Difficulty for blood to carry oxygen
- Irregular heartbeat
- Death from lack of oxygen to the brain
- Poor perception and coordination
- Blackouts from changes in blood pressure
Permanent Side Effects
Sometimes, the harm that inhalants do to organs can be treated. In some cases, it might even be reversible. However, regular abuse may result in permanent damage. This can include:
- Damage to heart muscle
- Liver failure
- Muscle weakness
- Aplastic anemia (when the body makes fewer blood cells)
- Nerve damage (can lead to chronic pain)
- Hearing loss
- Bone marrow damage
- Limb spasms
- Central nervous system damage (including the brain)
- Trouble with walking and talking
Are Inhalants Addictive?
Inhalant abuse can result in a physical addiction. However, psychological addictions are more common. Because the high that they give doesn’t last long, repeated use is common. The fact that inhalants are so cheap and easy to find is another factor. Addicts can use them long-term at very little cost. They don’t have to worry about running out. A quick trip to the store is all it takes to get a fix. This allows them to constantly fuel their addiction.
Often, addicts begin to use more dangerous inhalants over time. Methods of abuse can change as well. This happens as users begin to chase a longer, more intense high. Continued abuse may cause psychological withdrawal symptoms. These can include hallucinations and delusions. Physical withdrawal symptoms are not as common. Still, they can definitely become a problem. The effects tend to set in between 6 and 36 hours after usage.
Physical withdrawal symptoms include:
- Hand tremors
- Grand mal seizures
- Rapid pulse
Just like with any other drug, withdrawing from inhalants is dangerous. It’s very important to do so with medical supervision and guidance. If you or someone you know wants to stop abusing inhalants, contact a doctor to discuss a plan of action.
Inhalant Abuse in the United States
Inhalants are the fourth-most abused substance in the United States. They fall right behind alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana. Around 70% of those who use inhalants every year are first-timers. Throughout their lives, around 23 million Americans will try them. Nearly a quarter of these people will die from Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome.
Deaths caused by the other inhalant side-effects are hard to track. Often, doctors don’t realize that fatal damage to the body was due to inhalant abuse. Because of this, the death rate could be higher than anyone knows. This is especially scary because inhalants seem to be most popular with teenagers. The reports on this are very troubling. Recent statistics show that:
- Every year, almost 4,000 emergency room visits in the U.S. have to do with inhalant abuse.
- Around 450 Americans are hospitalized each year due to inhalant poisonings.
- Inhalant abuse is equally common in both urban and rural areas.
- The most frequently abused inhalant in America is butane.
- 10% of adults surveyed in an addiction treatment center had used inhalants more than five times.
- Inhalants are often the first drug that children ever try.
- Huffing and sniffing can begin as early as age ten.
- In the past year, over two-and-a-half million teenagers in the U.S. have used them.
- Each year, around 600,000 teenagers will try inhalants for the first time.
The Dangers of Inhalant Abuse Among Children
Data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration shows that 12-year-olds are more likely to use inhalants than cigarettes or marijuana. Huffing and sniffing is especially popular with young teenagers. This is mostly because inhalants are so readily available to them. In most cases, they’re free as well. Teens will use household items like air fresheners, hairspray, gasoline, and more to get high. Many begin with sniffing glue.
The health risks of inhalant abuse are also more severe in children. Young teenagers have very sensitive tissues and membranes in their noses and throats. This is because they’re still growing. As a result, their bodies are more likely to become permanently damaged. With teens, the long-term effects of inhalants are a major concern.
Brain and organ damage in children can soon become irreversible with continued abuse. Cancer is also a future possibility. Problems with memory are another common side-effect. Doctors have found that children are developing early dementia as a result of using inhalants. Hallucinations, walking into things, feelings of agitation, anxiety, and poor judgement also occur. Teenagers often try inhalants as a way to fit in with their friends. Sometimes, they’re coping with an undiagnosed mental illness.
Statistics of inhalant abuse in children show:
- 25% of American children have used a household product for the purpose of getting high by the time they’re in the eighth grade.
- The highest rates of inhalant abuse are seen among eighth-graders.
- 8.6% of eighth-grade girls try them, compared to 5.5% of eighth-grade boys.
- 75% of inhalant abusers are under the age of eighteen.
- 59% of U.S. teenagers know of at least one friend who uses inhalants.
- 58% of abusers will have begun using them before the ninth-grade is over.
- 33% of at-risk youth in the juvenile justice system regularly abuse inhalants.
- Up to 40% of patients in treatment for inhalant abuse are between 12 and 17-years-old.
How to Recognize and Prevent Inhalant Abuse
Inhalant abuse can be difficult to recognize. This is because most inhalants are such common household items. Still, there are signs to watch for that may help with spotting it. Its important to look for changes in physical appearance and behavior. Physical evidence is another tell-tale clue. Be sure to keep an eye out if you have a child or loved one who may be abusing inhalants.
Changes in physical appearance to look for:
- Rapid weight loss
- Runny nose
- Fingers stained with paint or pens
- Paint stains on the body
- Chemical smell on the breath
- Chemical smell on hands or clothes
- Rash around the nose and mouth
- Glassy eyes
- Lack of coordination
- Poor personal hygiene
Changes in behavior to look for:
- Appearing as though drunk
- Loss of appetite
- Slurred speech
- Mood swings
- Trouble concentrating
- Irritability or aggression
- Anxiety and excitability
- Falling grades
- Lack of interest in activities
- Withdrawing from friends and family
Physical evidence to look for:
- Hidden rags soaked in chemicals
- Chemical residue in plastic bags
- Empty or missing aerosol cans
- Chemical products in unlikely places
- Missing money
- Strange stains or odors on clothing
- Carrying butane lighters
- Painting nails with typing correction fluid
- Sniffing pens when they think no one is looking
- Sniffing their sleeves or hands