What Kind of Damage Are Inhalant Abusers Risking?

overdose from inhalants

Abusers risk serious or even irreversible heart, kidney, lung or brain damage, or even death. No one warns people that they risk death the very first time they abuse this type of drug.

When a person dies suddenly after sniffing inhalants, it is called Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome (SSDS). Of those who died of this syndrome, 22% were first-time users. SSDS occurs when the inhalants interfere with the rhythms of the heart, leading to heart failure. It is theorized that if a person is frightened by the hallucinations that can be common with heavy use, or if they are discovered by a parent or authority, the stress of surprise or fright can cause an adrenaline surge that is fatal when combined with inhalant intoxication.

Because the chemicals are so easily absorbed by the lungs, they quickly make their way to the brain. There is no buffer through the stomach, the liver or even the sinus membranes to soften their effects. Their effects are fast, powerful and very damaging.

Threats to Brain, Heart, and Kidneys

Brain and eyes: Different inhalants cause different types of brain damage. Some chemicals are thought to dissolve the protective coating around brain cells which causes those cells to die. If cells die in the cerebral cortex (the large outer layer) of the brain, personality changes, loss of memory, hallucinations and learning disabilities result. Cell death in the cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls balance and coordination, can cause slurred speech, weakness, uncoordinated movement, tremors and shaking.

brain and eye connection

Permanent brain damage and dementia can also result. The brain of a toluene abuser actually shrinks, leaving empty spaces inside the skull.

Toluene can affect the nerves from the brain to the eyes, resulting in sight disorders. These disorders can include ulcers on the eye, changes in visual sharpness and color blindness. Some people may experience a fading of vision so that what is seen is washed out. A few people have gone permanently blind as a result of inhalant abuse. They were sniffing a carburetor cleaner that contained methanol.

Sniffing paint fumes (called “chroming”) is also associated with burst blood vessels in the eye that can lead to blindness. Nitrous oxide, the propellant gas found in whipped cream canisters, can also lead to hearing loss.

Heart: As noted above, some inhalants can cause SSDS by interfering with the beating of the heart. This is particularly true of butane, found in some small appliances, lighters, and aerosol cans. One of the chemicals in butane tells the heart to beat faster. If the heart is too sensitive to this chemical if can develop an irregular rhythm which can cause death.


Kidneys: Glue-sniffing can lead to kidney shutdown which can be fatal if the user does not receive dialysis. If kidneys do not shut down, they may become less functional, which can lead to kidney stones.

On the next page, learn about the life-threatening effects of inhalants on the liver and other organs, muscles, the mind and unborn babies.


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