Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome (SSDS) can have devastating consequences. Many people who experiment with inhalants die from it, and even first-time inhalant users are at risk. The effects of this syndrome are severe. Damage to the body and brain and body can become irreversible, and for this reason and others, it’s imperative for parents to educate themselves and their children about inhalant abuse.
Why Is SSDS So Dangerous?
SSDS isn’t just a story that teachers make up to stop kids from inhaling glue or other toxic substances—it’s a real syndrome that is severe and deadly. It occurs when a person uses an inhalant that leads to fatal heart failure, which can transpire within minutes. Even a single episode of inhalant abuse can lead to death. It doesn’t matter their age, health, or if the person is using an inhalant for the first or one-hundredth time.
SSDS is most common in those who abuse products such as butane, propane, aerosol chemicals, or air conditioning coolant as inhalants.
What Is an Inhalant?
Inhalants are chemical vapors that produce feelings of intoxication when breathed in through the nose or mouth. Most of the time, inhalants are common household products that people (usually teenagers) use as a less expensive and more accessible alternative to illicit drugs. They can be obtained legally and easily.
When used for their proper purposes, such as for cleaning or painting, inhalants are relatively safe. However, when abused, they are hazardous. The four primary inhalant types are volatile solvents, gases, aerosols, and nitrites. Nitrites are commonly used to enhance sexual performance and pleasure. The others are reported to alter moods and produce a high. These are the four inhalant groups:
- Volatile solvents, which include paint thinners and removers, gasoline, glues, and felt-tip marker liquids.
- Gases, which include medical gases like ether and nitrous oxide. Other examples are butane lighters, propane tanks, refrigerants, and whipped cream canisters containing nitrous oxide.
- Aerosol sprays, including spray paint, deodorant, hairspray, cooking oil sprays, and static cling sprays.
- Nitrites, including cyclohexyl nitrite, amyl nitrite, and isobutyl nitrite, most commonly referred to as “poppers.”
How Are Inhalants Abused?
Inhalants can be ingested through the nose or mouth, usually by one of the following methods:
- Sniffing or snorting, or inhaling fumes are inhaled straight from a container
- Huffing, or the use of an inhalant-soaked rag covering the nose and mouth
- Bagging, or inhaling fumes from chemicals sprayed into a plastic bag
- Whippets, or the use of a balloon or canister for inhaling nitrous oxide
- Spraying aerosols directly into the mouth or nose
Can Inhalants Induce Brain Damage?
The answer is yes—they unquestionably can. Inhaled chemicals enter the bloodstream almost immediately and can reach the brain rapidly. Brain activity soon begins to slow down, resulting in feelings of being high. Nitrites are the only chemicals that work differently, and they cause blood vessels to expand and relax. Either way, the health risks include adverse short and long-term effects on the brain. With repeated chronic abuse, some of these can become irreversible.
Short-term effects on the brain include the following:
- Intoxication like being drunk
- Slurred speech
- Impaired coordination
- Extreme happiness or giddiness
- Hallucinations and delusions
- Convulsions or seizures
- Stupor or coma
- Transient hearing loss
- Loss of inhibition/impulsive control
- Severe mood swings
- Violent behavior and aggression
Regular Inhalant Abuse and the Brain
The high that users experience from inhalants typically only lasts a few minutes. Many individuals use them repeatedly in one session to make the feeling last longer, and this habit is extremely hazardous. Repeated use in a short period can lead to a loss of consciousness. It is also even more likely to lead to death. Abusing inhalants chronically allows some of the chemicals to accumulate in the brain. Over time, this can cause severe damage, and long-term effects can result in the following:
- Damage to nerve fibers
- Muscle spasms and tremors
- Difficulty talking or walking
- Multiple sclerosis-like effects
- Damage to brain cells
- Lack of oxygen to the brain
- Memory problems
- Convulsions or seizures
- Difficulty learning new things
- Loss of sense of smell
- Slow and clumsy movements
- Loss of brain tissue
- Impaired thinking
- Loss of coordination
- Hearing and vision loss
Are Inhalants Addictive?
Inhalant abuse can sometimes result in physical dependence, but psychoemotional addictions are more common. Because the high that provide doesn’t last long, repeated use is common. The fact that inhalants are so inexpensive and easy to obtain is another factor. Addicts can use them long-term at minimal cost. They don’t have to be concerned with running out, which allows them to fuel their addiction constantly.
Often, inhalant addicts begin to use more dangerous inhalants over time. Methods of abuse can change as well. This happens as users start to chase a more prolonged, more intense high. Continued abuse may cause psychological withdrawal symptoms. These can include hallucinations and delusions. Physical withdrawal symptoms are not as common, but in extreme cases, they can become a problem. They typically include the following:
- Hand tremors
- Grand mal seizures
- Rapid pulse
The Dangers of Inhalant Abuse Among Children
Huffing and sniffing are especially popular with young teenagers. As noted, this is mainly because inhalants are so readily available to them. Teenagers will use household items such as air fresheners, glue, hairspray, gasoline, and more to experience a high.
The health risks of inhalant abuse tend to be more severe in young teenagers, as they have vulnerable tissues and membranes in their noses and throats because they are still developing. As a result, their brains and bodies are more likely to incur irreversible damage. With teenagers, the long-term effects of inhalants are of significant concern.
Brain and organ damage in young people can soon become permanent with continued abuse. Increased risk of cancer is also a possibility in the future. Memory problems are another common side effect. Health experts and professionals have found that children can develop early dementia as a result of using inhalants. Hallucinations, impaired coordination, agitation, anxiety, and poor judgment have also occurred.
How to Recognize and Prevent Inhalant Abuse
Inhalant abuse can be challenging to recognize because most inhalants are everyday household items. Still, there are signs and symptoms to watch for that may help with spotting it. It’s essential to look for changes in physical appearance, behavior, and material evidence.
Changes in physical appearance to watch for:
- Rapid weight loss
- Runny nose
- Fingers stained with paint
- Chemical smell on breath/clothes
- Rash around nose and mouth
- Glassy eyes
- Lack of coordination
- Poor personal hygiene
Changes in behavior to watch for:
- Appearing as though drunk
- Loss of appetite
- Slurred speech
- Mood swings
- Difficulty concentrating
- Irritability or aggression
- Anxiety and hyperexcitability
- Worsening academic performance
- Loss of interest in activities
- Social withdrawal/isolation
Physical and behavioral evidence to watch for:
- 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, sleeves, or hands when they think no one is looking
Getting Treatment for Drug Abuse and Addiction
Inhalant abuse is a severe problem that can cause lasting damage to one’s health and possibly lead to even more intense substance abuse in the future. Persons who are inhaling substances are urged to undergo medical detox followed by a long-term residential or partial hospitalization treatment program, such as those offered by Just Believe Detox and Just Believe Recovery.
We offer a specialized, state-of-the-art approach to treatment that includes a wide variety of services, including psychotherapy, psychoeducation, counseling, group support, art and music therapy, mindfulness therapy, aftercare planning, and much more.