I remember growing up and hearing about people “huffing” spray paint, or sniffing “airplane” glue, or huffing air dusters to get high. For many children, it’s a readily accessible and inexpensive high. We refer to chemicals that are inhaled for a high as inhalants. The abuse of inhalants is, you guessed it, inhalant abuse.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, over 8% of 8th graders in 2018 had tried inhalants (https://www.drugabuse.gov/drug-topics/inhalants/inhalants-trends-statistics). That’s a rather staggering number.
In this post I’m going to focus on how inhalants (e.g., air dusters) cause euphoria. There’s a lot of confusion and misunderstanding, with some medical professionals (who are not toxicologists by training) who will tell you that inhalants work the same as gas anesthetics and central nervous system (CNS) depressant drugs, like alcohol. And that’s not right.
How Do Inhalants Cause Euphoria?
It’s pretty clear that the effects of inhalants is the same as the effects of asphyxiation. Some parents might recall the choking game, or variants on it. Some children engage in asphyxiation games because they get a sudden feeling or sense of euphoria. Doesn’t happen for all kids, but for the ones who do get this sensation, they may begin to desire and seek it out. That’s the dopamine reward system playing out — which can lead to addiction.
The connection between asphyxiation and euphoria is well-documented. As I mentioned, kids sometimes discover it on their own. The US military has studied low oxygen environments for years. And in those studies, with airmen and sailors, it’s well documented that asphyxiation leads to euphoria.
The puzzling thing is that not everyone experiences euphoria from asphyxiation.
How Do Inhalants Cause Asphyxiation?
It’s well-known that gases under pressure can displace the atmospheric gases in a room or enclosed space. If you’ve ever worked at a fast food restaurant, you may have seen the warnings on a CO2 tank (see above).
What happens is that gases are all competing to fill a space. If you open a CO2 tank in a room, the room will fill up with CO2. If it’s not a sealed room, the other gases will likely get pushed out (as will some of the CO2). What you have now is a room filled with CO2, and very little oxygen. We call this a hypoxic condition (meaning low oxygen condition).
No, or low, oxygen concentration in the room means you can’t breathe it in. Which means, you’re going to asphyxiate.
For more on how the lungs work, and how CO2 and oxygen are exchanged, you can see my blog post about factors that impact gas exchange in the lungs.
Okay, So My Nose/Mouth Aren’t a Room in a Fast Food Restaurant…
Right, so how does this relate back to people huffing (or using poppers, or any of the other street terms)? Well, your nose/mouth aren’t a whole lot different from an enclosed space, in physics terms.
The inhalant is coming out of the container at high pressure. It is displacing the atmospheric gases in your nose/mouth, and airway. That means there’s not much oxygen in what you’re breathing, and not much CO2, nitrogen, etc. But there sure is a lot of that inhalant!
If you remember nothing else:
No oxygen = asphyxiation.
And the asphyxiation happens really fast. And, in some people, euphoria follows. And that euphoria is pleasurable.
So those who experience euphoria may want to do it again. Which builds up reinforcement in their dopamine reward pathways, and you have a learned addiction.
Do You Have A Case Involving Inhalant Abuse?
Let the experts at Raptor Pharm & Tox, Ltd. help you understand the science to build a better case. Inhalant abuse can become an addiction that impacts loved ones, the workplace, and the public (e.g., car accidents). A lot of medical professionals misunderstand an inhalant’s mode of action, placing it in the same category as narcotics and gas anesthetics.
Dr. Burgoon and his team understand the connection between asphyxiants, inhalant abuse and euphoria. If you have an inhalant abuse case, contact us today.