Inhalant Use Can Impair Nervous System for 15 Years

Inhalants are a broad range of common, commercially available chemicals that get grouped together because they can function as makeshift drugs when inhaled through the nose or mouth. Use of these chemicals can trigger a number of serious or potentially fatal short- and long-term health problems. In a study published in 2013 in the journal Addiction, a team of Australian researchers assessed the prospects for eventual recovery from the nervous system-related damage associated with inhalant use. These researchers concluded that most affected individuals substantially or fully recover their nervous system health after 15 years of abstinence from inhalant intake.

Inhalant Basics

Inhalants get their name because people almost always abuse them by breathing them in, rather than by injecting them or using other means of introducing them into the body. Substances employed in this manner in the U.S. and throughout the world include aerosol-based sprays (e.g., paints, computer cleaners and deodorants), volatile solvents (e.g., glues, gasoline and degreasers), gases (e.g., nitrous oxide, butane and refrigerants) and nitrites or “poppers” (e.g., amyl nitrite and butyl nitrite). Except for nitrites, most inhalants achieve their mind-altering effects by interfering with the normal function of the central nervous system (spinal cord and brain) and producing an effect that mimics certain aspects of alcohol intoxication. Affected individuals may also develop problems with delusional thinking and/or hallucinations (known collectively as psychosis). According to figures compiled in 2011 by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, roughly 10 percent of all high school-age children in the U.S. have used an inhalant at least once. Short-term health problems associated with inhalant abuse include seizures, an unusually slow or fast heartbeat, high blood pressure, muscle function impairment, increased accident rates and increased levels of participation in risky behaviors. Short-term users are also susceptible to a phenomenon called sudden sniffing death syndrome, which occurs when an inhaled substance triggers a dangerously unstable heartbeat. Long-term health problems associated with inhalant abuse include central nervous system damage (usually brain damage), lung damage, kidney damage, heart damage, liver damage, mild to severe impairment of conscious mental function, increased risks for violent outbursts and increased risks for diagnosable mental disorders such as depression or antisocial personality disorder.

Inhalant Abuse Treatment

Many inhalant users don’t seek medical treatment unless their patterns of abuse lead to obvious physical problems. For this reason, inhalant abuse treatment commonly starts with short-term efforts designed to stabilize a patient and counteract the effects of the specific inhalant substance in question. After an individual receives short-term treatment, he or she typically benefits from longer-term treatment in a program specifically designed to address inhalant-related recovery issues. Such a program usually features steps that include dealing with the effects of inhalant withdrawal, acquiring the personal and social skills required to abstain from inhalant use over extended periods of time and preparing for a return to everyday life after the active phase of treatment comes to a close. Some people also need to deal with additional issues related to other forms of substance abuse or various types of mental illness.

Long-Term Prospects

Previous research efforts have shown that, after roughly two years of abstinence, most people who chronically abuse inhalants gradually experience a restoration of their conscious mental function, as well as a restoration of the normal physical function in their central nervous systems. In the current study published in Addiction, researchers from five Australian institutions examined the long-term mental and physical recovery outlook after 15 years of abstinence from inhalant use. This examination included 60 adults in long-term recovery from the chronic abuse of lead-free inhalants and 17 adults in long-term recovery from the chronic abuse of inhalants that contain lead, as well as a comparison group of 27 adults with no history of inhalant use/abuse. After reviewing their findings, the researchers concluded that, after 15 years in recovery, former chronic abusers of lead-free inhalants have mental and physical nervous system functions that are basically indistinguishable from the mental and physical functions of people with no history of inhalant use. The former chronic users of lead-containing inhalants (usually lead-containing gasoline) commonly incur brain damage related to lead exposure. As a result of this exposure, they typically experience permanent changes in their normal mental and physical function. In turn, the permanent nature of their impairment contributes to ongoing problems even after 15 years of inhalant abstinence. While some users of lead-containing inhalants see modest improvements in their central nervous system-related abilities, others see no significant improvement over time.

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