Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome
Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome (SSDS) is the most common killer of inhalant abusers. A victim may be trying inhalants for the first time, or may have tried them any number of times in the past. In fact, 22% of inhalant abusers who died of SSDS had no history of previous inhalant abuse.
SSDS occurs when an abuser is surprised or startled while sniffing or huffing. Often, this occurs when a parent or other authority figure finds the person inhaling. An especially exciting or frightening hallucination could also trigger SSDS.
When the abuser is surprised or startled, he has a sudden surge of the hormone epinephrine. Epinephrine is also called adrenaline. Epinephrine aids in regulating the functions of the body that are beyond a person’s conscious control, like heart rate. When a person is highly stimulated (by fear or challenge, for example,) extra amounts of epinephrine are released into the bloodstream to prepare the body for energetic action. Epinephrine increases blood pressure, heart rate, and cardiac output.
The presence of the chemical inhalants in the body makes the heart muscle more sensitive to epinephrine. When the surge of epinephrine reaches the heart, the heart suffers an arrhythmia (irregular heart beat). This massive arrhythmia kills the user in seconds.
Central Nervous System Damage
Many of the chemicals found in commonly abused inhalants cause severe and permanent brain and nerve cell damage.
Brain scans of inhalant abusers show dramatic shrinkage in the overall size of the brain. Abusers also lose "white matter" in the brain, which is responsible for conducting nerve impulses throughout the body. The white matter is destroyed because each cell is encased in myelin, a lipid or fat, and many commonly used inhalants are lipid-solvents; that is, their purpose is to break down lipids.
Chronic inhalant abusers suffer massive central nervous system damage, which results in dementia (lost contact with reality) and loss of cerebellum function. The cerebellum is the portion of the brain that coordinates movements of the voluntary muscles. Abusers lose the ability to think, reason, learn, and remember. Their gait (way of walking) becomes abnormal and they lose coordination.