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Updated on September 26, 2022

Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome

What is Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome (SSD)?

Sudden sniffing death syndrome (SSD) occurs from inhalant use. It can cause cardiac arrest or heart failure.

This can happen the first time a person tries inhalants or any time after that. Young people are the most common users of inhalants, so they are the most at risk of experiencing SSD. 

Methods for inhaling fumes that can lead to sudden sniffing death syndrome include:

  • Sniffing or inhaling straight from the container 
  • Huffing (by soaking a rag in the inhalant) 
  • Bagging (by inhaling fumes sprayed into a plastic bag) 
  • Whippits (using a special canister or balloon to inhale nitrous oxide)
  • Spraying aerosol sprays directly into the nose or mouth 

What Causes Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome?

Most deaths caused by sudden sniffing death syndrome are due to cardiac arrest caused by lack of oxygen. The heart needs oxygen to function correctly; many inhalants inhibit this from happening. 

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What Are Inhalants? 

Inhalants are composed of toxic substances found in industrial or household products. People inhale them to feel high or intoxicated.

These products are not intended to be used this way by the manufacturers. As such, inhalants are not often what is expected when it comes to typical drug use. 

They are more commonly used by young people who can't find illegal drugs.  

Some common inhalants include:

  • Propane  
  • Butane  
  • Hair spray  
  • Glue 
  • Solvents   
  • Spray paint 
  • Markers 
  • Paint thinners 
  • Freon
  • Cleaning products 
  • Air fresheners
  • Whip cream canisters 
  • Aerosol deodorants
  • Correction fluid
  • Nitrates
  • Other aerosols

How Do Inhalants Negatively Affect the Body?

Most inhalants act directly on the nervous system to produce certain effects on the mind and body. The volatile chemicals in inhalants can cause extreme harm to the brain, liver, kidneys, heart, and other vital organs. The damage can be permanent and, in some cases, fatal. 

Short-Term Effects

Some short-term negative effects that inhalants can cause include:

  • Slurred speech
  • Inability to coordinate movement
  • Hallucinations or delusions
  • Hostility or irritability 
  • Impaired judgment and riskier behavior taking 
  • Extreme headaches
  • Rashes around the nose and mouth
  • Loss of consciousness 

Long-Term Effects

Some long-term negative effects of inhalants include:

  • Depression 
  • Lack of coordination and control of motor skills 
  • Memory impairment and difficulty learning new things 
  • Mood swings and violent outbursts 
  • Hearing or vision loss
  • Irregular or rapid heartbeat 
  • Tremors or muscle spasms 
  • Seizures or convulsions 
  • Coma 

Permanent Effects

Permanent negative effects can result from using inhalants. Some of these include:

  • Damage to nerve fibers
  • Heart damage
  • Liver disease
  • Kidney damage
  • Damage to bone marrow 
  • Brain damage (memory impairment and decreased mental functioning) 
  • Asphyxiation, suffocation, or heart failure, leading to death 

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Are Inhalants Addictive?

Inhalants have the potential to be very addictive. People who use inhalants can develop both psychological and physical dependence on them. This can happen quickly or over a longer period. 

Symptoms of Inhalant Use 

Effects produced by inhalants tend to be very short. Due to this, people will often use them repeatedly over a short time period to make the feeling last longer.

The longer and more often you use inhalants, the greater the risk of developing negative side effects and addictive tendencies. 

Symptoms of inhalant use can range from mild to serious. These symptoms can often be short-term and resolve on their own. But with repeated use, symptoms can lead to long-lasting or permanent effects on the mind and body, potentially leading to death. 

Physical symptoms of use can include:

  • Slurred speech
  • Lack of coordination
  • Dizziness/Giddiness 
  • Hallucinations/Delusions
  • Drowsiness
  • Nausea
  • Hypoxia 
  • Limb spasms/seizures
  • Muscle weakness
  • Loss of smell, hearing, or vision 
  • Damage to the major organs in the body

Behavioral symptoms of use can include:

  • Loss of inhibitions or greater risk-taking behaviors 
  • Belligerence, irritability, violence, and mood swings 
  • Depression or becoming withdrawn
  • Difficulties with learning and concentrating
  • Apathy 

Common Inhalant Withdrawal Symptoms 

Symptoms of inhalant withdrawal are usually mild, though they can be severe in some cases. Typical withdrawal symptoms are more psychological than physical. The most common of these symptoms are headache, anxiety, nausea, and cravings. 

People suffering from more severe addictions may experience the following withdrawal symptoms:  

  • Hallucinations
  • Anxiety, depression, and psychosis
  • Restlessness
  • Insomnia 
  • Mood changes
  • Outbursts
  • Irritability 
  • Poor memory/difficulty concentrating
  • Excessive sweating or body chills 
  • Muscle spasms
  • Seizures/convulsions

How Do Inhalants Negatively Affect the Brain? 

Over time, chemicals found in inhalants wear down the protective sheath of the brain. This can cause loss of brain tissue and permanent brain damage. It is also why the risk of negative side effects rises with increasing usage of inhalants. 

Some potential negative effects that inhalants can have on the brain include:

  • Issues with memory 
  • Learning disabilities  
  • Personality changes 
  • Disruption of both fine and gross motor skill functioning
  • Difficulties with speech 
  • Decline or loss of problem-solving capabilities 

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How Dangerous is Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome?

Sudden sniffing death syndrome is extremely dangerous. As implied in the name, this syndrome is typically fatal. This can happen very quickly and without warning.

The reason SDS is so dangerous is because of the lack of oxygen that it causes in the bloodstream. This can lead to death so suddenly the person may still be holding the can in their hand when their heart stops. 

Any time you use inhalants, you are essentially taking a chance with your life. 

Can You Prevent Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome? 

The only real way to prevent sudden sniffing death syndrome is by not using inhalants. Unlike many other forms of drugs, there is no "safe" amount of inhalants to take.

These chemicals are not meant to be used for this purpose. Inhalant use should not be taken lightly. 

Young people with good self-esteem and self-assurance are less likely to use inhalants. Prevention efforts should be targeted at raising children's self-esteem, self-worth, and self-image. It should also communicate the risks that inhalant use poses. 

Treatment for Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome

Sudden sniffing death syndrome is fatal. Therefore, treatment should be aimed at prevention and minimizing substance use of potentially dangerous chemicals

This syndrome can happen the first time a person uses an inhalant, but the risk increases the more they use them. Prevention is crucial for this type of drug addiction.

There is little that can be done if sudden sniffing death syndrome occurs. 

Treatment for Inhalant Use & Addiction

There are many treatment options available for substance abuse and addiction, including:

Inpatient Programs

Inpatient treatment centers are a comprehensive option for those who struggle to stay sober without medical supervision. You'll live in substance-free housing and have access to 24/7 care from qualified professionals.

You'll undergo detoxification, behavioral therapy, and other services. These usually last 30, 60, or 90 days, sometimes longer.

Most programs help set up your aftercare once you complete the inpatient portion of your treatment.

Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHPs)

Partial hospitalization programs (PHPs) are also called intensive outpatient programs (IOPs). Partial hospitalization programs provide similar services to inpatient programs. Medical services, behavioral therapy, and support groups are included.

The main difference is in a PHP, you return home to sleep. Some services provide food and transportation (this varies by program).

PHPs are suitable for new patients as well as people who have completed an inpatient program and still need intensive treatment.

Outpatient Programs

Outpatient treatment is less comprehensive than inpatient or PHPs. These programs organize your treatment around your schedule. They provide therapy, education, and support in a flexible environment.

People who have a high motivation to recover and cannot leave their responsibilities at home, work, or school are ideal patients.

Outpatient programs may be a portion of your aftercare after an inpatient or partial hospitalization program.

Medication-Assisted Therapy (MAT)

Some medicines can help reduce the negative side effects of detox and withdrawal. Others can help you reduce cravings and normalize body functions.

Disulfiram, acamprosate, methadone, and naltrexone are the most common medications used to treat substance use disorders.

When combined with other evidence-based therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), MAT can help prevent relapse and increase your chance of recovery.

Support Groups

Support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), and Al-Anon are open to anyone with a substance use disorder. They are peer-led organizations dedicated to helping each other remain sober.

They can be the first step towards recovery or part of a long-term aftercare plan.

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Resources

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  1. About inhalants. . Paediatrics & child health, 7, 93–108. https://doi.org/10.1093/pch/7.2.93
  2. Ting-Jang Guo. . A rare but serious case of toluene-induced sudden sniffing death. Journal of Acute Medicine. Volume 5, Issue 4, Pages 109-111. ISSN 2211-5587, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jacme.2015.09.006
  3. Da Broi U, Colatutto A, Sala P, Desinan L. Medico legal investigations into sudden sniffing deaths linked with trichloroethylene. J Forensic Leg Med. 2015 Aug;34:81-7. doi: 10.1016/j.jflm.2015.05.016. Epub 2015 Jun 6. PMID: 26165664. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26165664/ 
  4. Verma, R., Balhara, Y. P., & Dhawan, A. . Inhalant abuse: An exploratory study. Industrial psychiatry journal, 20, 103–106. https://doi.org/10.4103/0972-6748.102493 
  5. National Institute on Drug Abuse. What Are Inhalants? NIDA. https://d14rmgtrwzf5a.cloudfront.net/sites/default/files/inhalantsrrs.pdf 
  6. AMN Healthcare Education Services. Substance Abuse: Inhalants. RN. https://lms.rn.com/getpdf.php/2011.pdf

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