Inhalants - Abuse, Addiction and Treatment

Nitrates and Amyl

When it comes to drug abuse inhalants are among the cheapest and easiest ways of getting high. After all, they're in every household and school in the developed world - and the vast majority of them are legal.

Nicknamed glue, whipped cream, poppers and rush, they fall into one of three categories:

  • nitrates - amyl and butyl
  • gases - butane, propane and some aerosols
  • solvents - including correction fluid, felt tips, glue, household cleaning products.

Generally speaking we're talking about useful every day products which can produce psychoactive vapours. Many people don't think of them as drugs as they were never meant to be used that way.

When sniffed they give the user an instant rush to the head (that much sought after "high"). Some people increase the effect by breathing through a plastic bag (huffing) or by spraying aerosols directly into the throat.

Historically, nitrates have been used largely by the gay community to enhance sexual experience and pleasure. Although the correct use of amyl nitrate is for people with heart conditions and can only be prescribed by pharmacists.

Nitrates are also popular among clubbers because of the instant rush and high. Amyl nitrate, which is sealed in capsule, is often referred to as poppers or snappers thanks to the sound it makes when the capsule is broken. It's freely available over the internet and in many sex shops worldwide. In America butyl nitrate is illegal but for the majority of the world both substances are legal.

Inhalant abuse normally starts early. It doesn't begin with dealers on the corner targeting kids and there is no huge drugs market because the "drug" is already available in most homes and it's cheap. Nitrates are largely the preserve of older groups who use them sporadically, mainly at parties and clubs, to get a quick high.

Because inhalants are cheap, some kids will experiment simply because they're there, they're bored or because their friends are doing it. And by their very nature as kids they like to shock, offend and rebel, particularly if they are going through a rough time with their parents.

Users normally start around puberty when being one of the gang (or peer pressure as adults call it) is very important. Statistics show that young white males are the most common users.

Inhalant Abuse Statistics

In both the UK and America use is high among the 12 to 16 age group. According to the European School Project on Alcohol and other Drugs (ESPAD), 20% of youngsters in the UK in that age group have tried inhalants. In Sweden and Greece studies show experimental usage of inhalants exceeds that of cannabis. Increase poverty in other parts of Europe , particularly in eastern countries, has led to a general rise in the level of inhalant abuse. In Romania , a study by the organisation Street Kids estimated that 74% of children living rough have tried inhalants.

In North America , inhalants are the third most abused substance after alcohol and tobacco. Use is more prevalent among the young of indigenous communities such as Native American, Inuit and Hispanics, while in South America it is regarded as the "poor people's drug" used by the majority of street children.

Deaths from inhalant abuse are now stabilising worldwide but more than a third of them, particularly in the UK and the US , involve first time users. Since 1971 more than 2000 people in the UK have died from solvent abuse according to a report by St George's Hospital Medical School .


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