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Medical Consequences of Inhalant Use

Inhalant users risk an array of other devastating medical consequences.

The highly concentrated chemicals in solvents or aerosol sprays can induce irregular and rapid heart rhythms and lead to fatal heart failure within minutes of a session of prolonged sniffing. This syndrome, known as “sudden sniffing death,” can result from a single session of inhalant use by an otherwise healthy young person. Sudden sniffing death is associated particularly with the use of butane, propane, and chemicals in aerosols.

Inhalant Misuse Can Also Cause Death By:

  • Asphyxiation, from repeated inhalations that lead to high concentrations of inhaled fumes, which displace available oxygen in the lungs
  • Suffocation, from blocking air from entering the lungs when inhaling fumes from a plastic bag placed over the head
  • Convulsions or seizures, from abnormal electrical discharges in the brain
  • Coma, from the brain shutting down all but the most vital functions
  • Choking, from inhalation of vomit after inhalant use
  • Fatal injury, from accidents, including motor vehicle fatalities, suffered while intoxicated

Unique Risks Associated with Nitrite Misuse

Nitrites are misused mainly by older adolescents and adults. Typically, individuals who misuse nitrites are seeking to enhance sexual function and pleasure. Research shows that misuse of these drugs in this context is associated with unsafe sexual practices that greatly increase the risk of contracting and spreading infectious diseases such as HIV/ AIDS and hepatitis.

There may also be a link between the misuse of nitrites and the development and progression of infectious diseases and tumors. Animal research indicates that inhaling nitrites depletes many cells in the immune system and impairs mechanisms that fight infectious diseases. A study found that even a relatively small number of exposures to butyl nitrite can produce dramatic increases in tumor incidence and growth rate in animals.

Hazards of Other Common Chemicals