Driving Under The Influence of Drugs
The Effect of Inhalents on Your Driving Ability

The Danger of Inhalants: Driving Under The Influence

Updated July 21, 2019

Inhalants are a group of commonly misused psychoactive substances that can only be taken by inhaling, like solvents, aerosols, gases and nitrates. Most inhalants are products designed for purposes other than human consumption and are not intended to be used as recreational or medicinal drugs. These products can be purchased in millions of stores around the United States by just about anybody and are found in practically every home. They include spray paints, glues, hair sprays, cleaning fluids, lighter fluids and markers.

Inhalants produce a variety of mind-altering effects when their fumes are inhaled through the nose or mouth. This is sometimes referred to as “sniffing,” “snorting”, “huffing” or “bagging”. As inhalants are easy to get hold of, they are frequently misused by younger teenagers. One recent report found that:

  • 1 in every 4 American students has intentionally used a household product to get high at least once before reaching the eighth grade.
  • More than 2.6 million children aged between 12 and 17 use inhalants every year.
  • 59% percent of American children report having friends who abuse inhalants at age 12.

Inhalant abuse is extremely dangerous, though its precise impact is difficult to quantify as inhalant-related deaths are often attributed to other causes. We do know that inhalants have the potential to cause severe physiological effects, overdose and death from the very first use. In 2008, the average number of inhalant-related emergency room visits per state was a staggering 3,800.

The effects of inhalants

Breathing in fumes from an inhalant creates an almost immediate effect, which usually lasts a few minutes. Many of the chemicals found in common inhalants are depressants, in that they slow down the brain and the central nervous system. The precise effects will vary depending on the substance being used, though the typical effects of inhalant abuse include:

  • Extreme dizziness
  • Cognitive confusion
  • Mild visual and auditory hallucinations
  • Fits of laughter
  • Poor coordination and the feeling of being drunk
  • Severe headache
  • Vomiting
  • Blacking out
  • Mood swings
  • Aggressive behavior

The health risks associated with abusing inhalants are varied and often serious. The potential effects depend on the precise chemical make-up of the product being inhaled. Keep in mind that most aerosols, solvents and similarly abused inhalants contain a cocktail of toxic chemicals, none of which were intended for human consumption. Check out this list of common inhalant ingredients and their health risks:

Inhalent Ingredients & Health


Amyl and Butyl Nitrate.

Immune system deficiency, damaged blood cells and heart complications.


Butane and Propane.

Commonly found in lighter fluid and hair spray. Can cause burns and heart damage.


Benzene.

Found in gasoline. Can cause weakening of the bone marrow, immune system damage, reproductive issues and increased risk of leukemia.


Freon.

Commonly found in cooling fluids and aerosol sprays. Can cause heart damage, liver damage and breathing difficulties.


Nitrous Oxide.

Also referred to as “laughing gas”. Can cause loss of sensation, perception distortions, muscle spasms, blackouts and heart damage.


Hexane.

Commonly found in glues. Carries similar risks to nitrous oxide and can cause sudden death.


Toluene.

Found in gasoline, paint thinner and correction fluids. Known to cause cognitive impairment, brain damage, loss of coordination, hearing and vision disturbances, liver damage and kidney damage.


Methylene Chloride.

Found in degreasing agents and paint thinners. Can cause heart and blood cell damage.


Trichloroethylene.

Found in degreasing agents and industrial cleaners. Known to cause heart damage, liver damage, reproductive issues and hearing and vision loss.

Inhalants and your driving ability

Inhalant abuse can seriously impair your driving ability in a myriad of ways. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) organizes research into the effects of commonly abused substances on driving ability. As there are so many different chemicals in even the simplest of common inhalants, pinning down any inhalant’s likely effect on driving ability is tricky. One of the most common ingredients in frequently abused inhalants is toluene, on which multiple driving impairment studies have been conducted.

Toluene abuse was shown to impair the mind and body in several ways that will result in unsafe driving. Test subjects experienced:

  1. 1

    Memory loss and memory confusion.
    This would leave the driver less able to recall important driving-related information.

  2. 2

    Loss of accurate visual perception.
    Increases the likelihood that important roadway details will be missed or misinterpreted.

  3. 3

    Inability to recognize colors.
    Road signs and traffic signals may be misinterpreted.

  4. 4

    Delayed reactions to changes in environment.
    The driver may not respond to roadway changes fast enough to avoid conflict.

  5. 5

    Extremely slowed body movement.
    The driver may not be able to brake, accelerate or steer to complete maneuvers effectively.

  6. 6

    Loss of spatial awareness.
    The driver may overestimate how much space is around their vehicle and follow other road users too closely.

  7. 7

    Loss of judgment.
    The driver may make risk-enhancing decisions.

  8. 8

    Inability to follow instructions.
    The driver will be more likely to take a wrong turn or ignore instructions given by traffic control devices.

  9. 9

    Inability to remain focused on a task.
    The driver will be more easily distracted by events and objects both inside and outside the vehicle.

Any one of these impairments would increase the likelihood of a crash or collision occurring. When inhalant intoxication causes several (or all) of these effects simultaneously, the risk of property damage, serious injury or death is enormous.

Though the initial, powerful mind-altering effects of an inhalant will wear off relatively quickly, the toxic chemicals you have inhaled will remain in your body for quite some time and could cause sudden, unexpected impairments long after the drug was taken. When the residual chemical takes effect, you could experience anything from an acute headache and muscle spasms, to unconsciousness or even sudden death.

Physical discomfort of any kind will seriously distract you from the driving task, especially when it sets in without warning. While suffering with these after-effects, you will be considerably more likely to miss important events on the roadway and make a fatal mistake. Experiencing loss of motor control due to muscle spasms or tremors while driving could be disastrous. Even a single unanticipated movement could cause you to slam your foot down on a pedal or jerk the steering wheel hard enough to swerve and hit a vehicle in an adjacent lane. Passing out at the wheel practically guarantees serious injury or death, for you, your passengers or for somebody else using the road.

Understanding the dangers of inhalant abuse

Many teenagers are tempted to engage in inhalant abuse as the wide availability of these substances leads them to believe that they are “not as dangerous” as other illicit drugs. In reality, inhalants are probably more dangerous than many other commonly abused drugs, as their effects are varied and hard to predict. Plus, unlike other man-made drugs, inhalants were never designed to be tolerated by the human body.

As a novice driver, you already suffer with an enhanced risk of making mistakes behind the wheel and being involved in a collision. You cannot afford to increase that risk by putting any toxic and unpredictable substances in your body. All intoxicating substances are dangerous, even if they can be purchased in every convenience store around the country!

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