Drug Facts: Inhalants

First published 2003. To view the latest Heads Up content, click here.


Inhalants Can Kill

You can die the first time you try inhalants.

There are a number of ways huffing can kill. The most common is called Sudden Sniffing Death syndrome. “The chemicals are acting neurologically to cause irregular heart rhythms that can lead to heart failure and then death,” says NIDA’s Dr. David Shurtleff.

You can also die by asphyxiation (lack of oxygen). When you breathe in the fumes, you fill up the cells in your lungs with poisonous chemicals, leaving no room for the oxygen we all need to breathe and live. Lack of oxygen can lead to respiratory failure and death.

In this country, approximately 100 teens die each year from inhalant abuse. Last year, Johnson Bryant became one of those teens. Still in shock, his parents talked to us about their tremendous loss.

Chris Bryant, father: “Johnson and I had an unusually close relationship… .This was a child who went to a private school, had an A-/B+ average, played varsity sports, and made a very bad decision.”

Toy Bryant, mother: “It’s frightening to see your son in a body bag…. When the coroner said it looked like he’d inhaled butane, I thought, ‘This is something I see on 20/20.’ …There is no pain like losing a child…. Some mornings I can’t get out of bed…. I talk to Johnson sometimes. Sometimes I yell at him. Sometimes I say ‘I miss you, baby.'”

Who Needs Myelin?

Inhalants can damage or destroy myelin. But who needs myelin? You do.

Messages travel along the axons of your brain cells (or neurons) in the form of electricity. Think of myelin as the insulation around these electrical “wires.” It’s a fatty coating, or sheath, that protects the axons and helps conduct messages smoothly and speedily, ensuring that your muscles easily carry out your brain’s orders.

When myelin deteriorates, this smooth flow of signals is disrupted. The result? Muscle spasms and tremors, or even permanent difficulty with basic actions like walking, bending, and talking.

Healthy myelin helps speed messages smoothly from cell to cell in your brain. The messages cannot flow freely when myelin is damaged. This means that your muscles won’t be able to obey your brain.

Over-the-Counter Horror
Forget the idea that if you can buy it at the grocery store it’s harmless. Inhalants can do serious and sometimes permanent damage to your brain, nerves, and body. Here’s just some of what research tells us.


Inhalants can…

  • disrupt the flow of messages between brain cells by destroying myelin (see myelin graph above).
  • actually shrink parts of the brain. Where brain tissue disappears, brain cells have died. Effects may include difficulties with learning, thinking, and remembering.
  • damage the lungs, kidneys, and liver.
  • damage bone marrow.
  • cause hearing loss.
  • impair vision.
  • cause limb spasms.
  • cause muscle weakness.
  • cause tremors and uncontrollable shaking.

For more information on inhalants, check out:

(Image credits: Diagram: 5W Infographics; Illustration: Stephen Kroninger)

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