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The Dangers Of Sniffing And Snorting Drugs (Insufflation)

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

Medically reviewed by

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

January 24, 2019

While drug abuse is a risky endeavor that leads users into a host of dangers, one thing that may impact the type of risks is the route by which a person chooses to administer the drug. Sniffing inhalants or snorting a drug can damage the brain, change a person’s cognition, and create numerous other physical and mental complications.

What Are Inhalants?

Inhalants are typically everyday household, industrial, or medical chemicals that are used in the manner of a drug, either inhaled orally, or nasally, through sniffing. Examples include gasoline, lighter fluid, hair spray, paint thinners, degreasers, cleaning fluid, and “laughing gas” or nitrous oxide. When an individual sniffs these drugs, they may do so directly from the container, by “bagging,” which is when they sniff from a bag containing the substance; or by actually spraying the substance up their nose.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), there are four categories of inhalants: volatile solvents, aerosols, gases, and nitrites. Excluding nitrates, which are typically used “as sexual enhancers,” inhalants are generally used to boost a user’s mood, creating a sense of pleasure by the way they depress the central nervous system. The first three categories may result in feelings of:

  • Mood changes—apathetic or belligerent state
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Impaired judgment and functioning
  • Confused state or stupor
  • Delirium
  • Sense of drowsiness or lethargic state
  • Impaired reflexes and coordination
  • Weakened muscles
  • Trouble speaking

Overall, inhalant abuse may cause:

  • Decreased immune system functioning
  • Damage to a child in utero
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Dementia
  • Brain damage
  • Organ damage (lungs, kidney, heart, and liver)
  • Death

Inhalants may cause fatality by:

  • Fatal injury
  • Choking
  • Suffocation
  • Asphyxiation
  • Convulsions
  • Seizures
  • Coma

Extreme changes to a person’s cardiovascular system may result, disrupting the heart’s rhythm so that it becomes rapid and irregular. This can take place during a person’s first sniffing session and may happen within minutes of intense use, leading to heart failure. This can be fatal and is called “sudden sniffing death.” Each chemical compound may carry specific risks, for instance, benzene, a chemical found in gasoline, may increase a person’s risk of leukemia, a type of cancer.

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What Drugs Do People Snort?

Snorting drugs carries not only the adverse effects that are associated with the specific drug of abuse, but those that are tied to this invasive means of administering these drugs, both illicit drugs and prescribed medications, including:

  • Heroin
  • Methamphetamine
  • Cocaine
  • Adderall
  • Ritalin
  • Vicodin
  • Oxycodone
  • Synthetic cathinones (i.e. “bath salts” or Flakka)

Individuals commonly use a razor to cut and crush the drug, drawing it into a line which they then snort with a rolled up bill, straw, or cut off and hollowed pen. For this reason, if you find any of these items of drug paraphernalia, there is good reason to suspect drug abuse or addiction.

What Dangers Are Commonly Associated With Snorting Drugs?

Snorting any drug is dangerous, however, what is unique in terms of prescription drug abuse of this kind, is that these drugs and their respective chemical components are meant only to be in contact with gastrointestinal tissues, not the sinuses, nasal lining, or lungs, thus these tissues can become inflamed, irritated, and damaged. Though the exact risk may vary a bit from drug to drug, due to their exact chemical makeup and properties, the following are examples of the general risks of snorting drugs:

  • Damage to the cilia (nostril hairs)
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Persistent infections
  • Nosebleeds (epistaxis)
  • Recurring runny nose
  • Nasal obstruction
  • Nasal deformity
  • Collapsed nasal passages
  • Bone loss in nasal region
  • Perforated Septum (hole in nasal septum)
  • Allergies may worsen
  • Nose whistles
  • Development of or increased snoring
  • Decreased sense of smell or loss of smell
  • Foul odors
  • Toxic shock
  • High fever
  • Lung complications
  • Aggressive tendencies or psychotic episodes
  • Convulsions
  • Seizure
  • Respiratory distress
  • Heart arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat)
  • Issues with your blood circulation
  • High blood pressure
  • Death

Individuals who choose to snort these drugs may also faced a heightened risk of contracting hepatitis C if they share the paraphernalia used to snort the drugs, as nasal mucous may contain blood.

Experts report that crushing and snorting prescription drugs may put individuals at higher risks for doing so with other drugs, such as heroin. Commenting on this, in regards to youth who use heroin, NIDA reports that “Many of these young people also report that crushing prescription opioid pills to snort or inject the powder provided their initiation into these methods of drug administration.”

In addition, a person may experience behavioral or mental changes as a result of abusing drugs in these manners and struggling with the adverse effects. As these conditions become more pronounced, a person may struggle with low self-esteem, anxiety, and shame, even in the capacity that they begin to become socially isolated. Drugs alter your brain’s neurochemistry in severe ways, and may lead to developmental or cognitive changes.

There is a hidden risk for certain drugs, that some may not consider—the adverse effects associated with any filler agents in the drug. Various illicit drugs that are found in powdered form, such as heroin and cocaine, are commonly adulterated or cut with numerous other compounds, including various foodstuffs, household products, and even other drugs. Some of these “cutting agents” carry their own set of risks. Talcum powder, a substance most commonly found in baby powder, is commonly witnessed in these drugs, and may be harmful. As outlined by MedlinePlus, this may occur over a prolonged period of time (such as with chronic drug abuse) and may cause convulsions, low blood pressure, lethargy, chest pain, fever, or even coma.

Increased Risk Of Addiction, Overdose, Or Sudden Death

As numerous prescription drugs are abused in this way, some may fail to see the risk inherent in this mode of use, believing that since they are taking a prescribed medication in the same dose as the oral route, that there would be no increased measure of risk. This is untrue. Firstly, just because a drug is prescribed doesn’t make it any safer or less addictive when abused. Secondly, this method of administration is very invasive and can create the myriad dangers we previously spoke of. Lastly, snorting or sniffing the drug allows it to pass to your bloodstream much quicker, in a more intense manner, thus heightening the addictive potential. Though this may not happen as quickly as when a person smokes or injects a drug, there is still an increased measure of risks. According to NIDA, “The faster a drug with addictive liability reaches the brain, the more likely it will be abused.”

The quickness that these drugs reach your brain is vastly what influences the risk of overdose. This is especially true with prescription drug abuse. Many pills are created to be released slowly, over time, this mechanism of action is bypassed when an individual crushes the pill and snorts it. Thusly, a drug that is meant to enter your system over the course of several hours instead enters your body fairly simultaneously, creating a dangerous situation that often results in death.

Individuals who have preexisting medical conditions, especially those related to cardiac concerns or complications, may experience a heightened risk when snorting certain drugs, including sudden death. Livestrong.com comments on one drug specifically, noting that “Adderall carries the risk of sudden death in those with an abnormal heart structure, even when used in the correct manner and dose. Snorting Adderall increases this risk.”

Cocaine’s Many Risks

Cocaine is a drug that many people are quick to equate to nasal snorting and a drug that is widely abused across the United States. As derived from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), NIDA reports that “In 2014, there were an estimated 1.5 million current (past-month) cocaine users aged 12 or older.” Due to this prevalence, we will go in greater depth on the risks and dangers of snorting this drug, also for the purpose of detailing in greater depth how some of the dangers we’ve noted above may originate in other drugs of abuse.

As cautioned by The New England Journal of Medicine, cocaine has powerful properties as a vasoconstrictor, meaning it restricts the blood flow to certain tissues by narrowing various blood vessels, creating a condition called ischemia. As these tissues do not receive blood, and subsequently the oxygen and glucose that is crucial to keep these tissues alive and fully functioning, some may begin to become damaged or necrotic (tissue begins to die). This may cause ulcerations in certain tissues, such as those within the septum or the hard or soft palates (roof of your mouth), creating what could be a hole of varying sizes.

The blood supply to the nose is very tenuous and easily affected by cocaine’s effect. Because of this, within the nose, as previously mentioned with all drugs used this way, cocaine may cause a perforated septum. In the absence of oxygen, the delicate lining of the septum begins to die. Without this, the cartilage is no longer properly supported and also begins to die, creating the hole. Though early detection may help to prevent this, unfortunately, many of the symptoms that point to an encroaching risk are easily confused with other, more minor nasal conditions, including a sinus infection, congestion, nosebleeds, excess discharge, or symptoms of allergies. This hole increases the risk of infection, and over time, the actual appearance of the nose may change, creating a broad, flattened nose, termed “saddle nose.” A perforated septum will not heal on its own and may worsen over time with continued and prolonged abuse.

When this occurs within your mouth, it is termed a palatal perforation. This condition creates further complications, especially when a person eats, as the food may pass through the hole into the nasal region, causing nasal regurgitation (food and fluids escape into nasal cavity). A person may also experience hoarseness or changes to their voice. Surgery is typically required, though ill advised for those continuing cocaine abuse, as it would likely fail; surgery may be possible after abstinence is achieved. Before this point, a removable obturator (dental device used within the mouth to cover the perforation) may be constructed.

Research presented by the Canadian Dental Association writes about a 34-year-old male who had snorted cocaine for a duration of 19 years. In addition to documented bone loss, they report that he had a “cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) leak through the right ethmoid sinus,” a condition which occurs when the fluid surrounding the brain leaks through a hole in the skull bone into the nose. Other patients presented with problems with their vision, with one exhibiting “bilateral optic neuropathy…secondary to cocaine abuse. The patient had initially described “holes” in his vision.” A second had blindness in her left eye and reduced vision in her right eye, which CT scans revealed to be due to a lesion extending to the orbital apexes (areas within the skull’s eye region). Lastly, they report that cerebral brain abscesses may occur, which are “usually fatal.”

Choose A Better Path

The dangers of drug abuse are great. If you’re struggling with sniffing inhalants or snorting drugs, or abusing drugs in any other way, we can help. We want you to come to know the fulfillment of a drug-free life, and we can support you as you begin taking steps towards this goal.

RehabCenter.net can offer you more information on any drug of abuse, including those that may be snorted or inhaled, as well as the best treatment options to address your specific needs. Contact us today.

National Institute on Drug Abuse - Inhalants: Research Report Series

Live Science - Adderall: Uses, Abuses & Side Effects

Osborne Head & Neck Institute - What Effect Does Cocaine Have on the Nose?

Canadian Dental Association - Midfacial Complications of Prolonged Cocaine Snort

British Dental Journal - Palatal perforations: past and present. Two case reports and a literature review

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