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What they are and how they are used

Solvents are poisons found in household products which give off fumes at room temperature and cause intoxication (similar to alcohol or anaesthetics). 

Substances which contain solvents include:
 glues, correction fluids, paint thinners, dry cleaning fluid, nail polish remover, cigarette lighter gas, aerosol sprays, whipping cream dispensers, petrol, toluene and others.

A sample of the many hundreds of products which may be inhaled & cause intoxication

Solvents are also called inhalants or volatile substances.  The behaviour of inhaling these substances to get intoxicated is called 'sniffing', 'glue sniffing', 'chroming' (spray paint), 'nanging' (nitrous oxide), 'huffing', solvent abuse or volatile substance use/abuse.

Solvents can be directly inhaled through the mouth or nose from its container or placed into another container such as a plastic bag or tin or by putting the substance on a sleeve or rag.  Solvents are also directly absorbed through the skin.

Effects of solvents

As with all drugs, the effects of solvent sniffing will depend on:

* the amount inhaled;

* the environment in which the substance is used;

* individual characteristics such as age, gender, mood, previous experience and mood; and

* the way the substance is inhaled.

Similar to alcohol
The effects of solvents are similar to alcohol as they are both depressant substances.  

Speed of effects
Solvents differ from alcohol in their speed of onset which can occur within seconds.  This can cause disorientation. Unless more gas is inhaled, the primary effects tends to wear off in 1 - 5 minutes.  In some cases where large amounts have been inhaled over a period of time, these effects can last up to 1 hour after the last dose.  In the case of petrol sniffing, some short-term effects can last up to 6 hours.

Up to half of those using solvents also report visual distortions (mild hallucinations or illusions). These tend to be frightening in nature.

Solvents can sometimes cause irritation to the nose, eyes and mouth during and after use.  

Hangovers and headaches often occur during or shortly after use and may last several hours.


Physical damage often reversible
The weight of research evidence suggests the physical effects of solvents on organ tissue (including the brain), rarely causes permanent damage in the majority of solvent abusers.  Where there is evidence of effects such as memory problems, reduced impulse control, kidney, liver or bone/blood effects, these are mostly reversible over time if the person stops using solvents. (There is evidence of permanent damage from long-term or high dose exposure to solvents in workplace/industrial settings).

Permanent damage from long-term use
Long-term use of some solvents can cause permanent damage to brain, liver and kidney function although this is relatively rare.

Long-term use of leaded petrol in particular may cause brain damage as well as other health problems including leukaemia, cancers, pneumonia and anorexia.

Sudden Sniffing Death (SSD)
Some solvents, particularly butane gas in lighter refills, aerosols, cleaning fluid, liquid paper correction fluid, certain fire extinguishers, and petrol can cause 'Sudden Sniffing Death' (SSD). The solvent reacts with natural adrenaline-like substances to cause heart failure. This is more likely to occur during strenuous exercise or if suddenly frightened immediately after or during sniffing.  Sudden death from solvents can also be caused by lack of oxygen if a plastic bag is placed over the head or from suffocation is aerosols are sprayed directly into throat from swelling and spasm of the larynx.

Accidents such as drowning and injury from motor vehicles occur in much the same way as intoxication from alcohol.

Risk of suicide relates to five key factors:
1. Use of solvents as a coping mechanism may replace other, more functional coping strategies. 
2. Impulse suicide is more common during periods of intoxication.
3. Unsupported withdrawal from solvents (particularly if a primary coping strategy) may predispose to suicide attempts.
4. Young males are the highest users of solvents and also amongst the highest risk groups for suicide.
5. Chronic solvent users almost always have major emotional/psychological/environmental problems which precede solvent use.

Sex Abuse and Sexual Problems
The following make solvent sniffing particularly risky regarding sexual issues:

bulletYoung age of user and inexperience make a target for exploitation by paedophiles and others
bulletRapidity of onset means can be used as a 'date rape' drug
bulletVulnerability to STDs because of inexperience, shame in using condoms & reckless behaviour associated with intoxication
bulletSeveral reports of trading solvents for sexual favours.  

Some people can become dependent upon solvents, which may cause serious disruption to their lives as well as resulting in developmental delays.  Some young people use solvents to manage psychological pain and as a way to show others they have problems.   It's use may be similar to self-harming behaviours.  Suicide is a high risk with these young people, particularly in unsupported detoxification.

Tolerance (needing more of the substance for similar effects) can occur with regular solvent use.  Cross tolerance, (tolerance to other substances) particularly to alcohol and anaesthetic gases can also occur.  

Withdrawal symptoms tend to be reduced as solvents are absorbed into the fatty tissue and slowly released from the body.   However, if heavily reliant on solvents, a range of symptoms including anxiety, depression, headaches' and abdominal cramps may occur.

Who uses solvents
(Click here for a number of downloadable files on statistics).

While the peak age range of solvent use is between 11 and 16, the vast majority (around 4 out of 5) of this age group have never used solvents. Of those who have used solvents, around half only try once or twice (experimental).   Some may continue to use socially for a period while the drug is in fashion (social).  A small minority will continue to use and may become dependent (dependent).

There is a modest over-representation of Aboriginal children using solvents in some communities. However, by far the largest number of solvent users in Western Australia are non-Aboriginal.  There seems to be a relatively equal distribution between gender of solvent users in WA.

As those who use solvents grow older, they tend to switch to the use of alcohol and/or marijuana. Even for those who continue to use solvents, alcohol and/or marijuana are used more often as the preferred drug in most cases. 

Why they use solvents and why they don't

Reasons for Use
Generally speaking, young people use solvents for much the same reasons as adults use alcohol or other substances.  These reasons can be grouped into: 
a) seeking pleasure or 
b) avoiding discomfort and pain.  
In addition, young people may try these substances:
- out of curiosity; 
- to challenge adult values;
- to draw attention to themselves;
- to express pain, anxiety and suffering;
- to be the best at being bad;
- to be part of a sub-culture they may identify with.  

Protective Factors
Possibly a more important question is why don't the majority of young people use these substances, given that they are cheap, available, legal and provide a short-term 'high' which can be easily controlled and extended. 

The naturally occurring protective factors which reduce the amount of solvent inhalation include:
- seen as 'gutter drugs' by most youth;
- social disapproval including peers;
- not generally advertised or glamorised by media;
- fear of harm, particularly brain damage;
- disapproval by parents and adults;
- bad smell;
- effects can be frightening and disorientating;
- headaches and irritation to eyes, nose and mouth.

The above protective factors are particularly important in designing interventions.  That is, where possible they should be maximised.   They definitely should not be compromised as these factors affect the majority of young people.


Legislation relating volatile substance use (VSU) can be categorised in these areas:

User based legislation (ie possession)


Supply based legislation (ie sale, supply, packaging)


Welfare based legislation (ie management of street intoxication and other welfare issues affecting minors and others)


Law and order based legislation (ie laws governing misconduct)

Laws on their own tend to be poorly associated with change. They may be difficult to draft and implement because many of the products containing solvents have legitimate uses. In addition, some laws may actually increase levels of harm. 

For example, in the UK, where laws were introduced to reduce the supply of solvents, solvent deaths increased as users moved to more hazardous products (aerosols & butane gas) which were difficult to control. 

However, voluntary controls are encouraged.  Retailers have a legal and moral right to refuse sale of solvents if they choose.  In some jurisdictions (ie WA) it is an offence to knowingly sell or supply solvents to persons if it is know they will use them to become intoxicated. Having a written store policy will help protect stores against the unlikely event of discrimination issues.

What can be done

Identify exactly what's happening, what's working and what's not
- How much use & by whom?
- What are the key issues associate with solvent sniffing to be managed?
- What's already being done (what's working and what's not)
- Who needs to be involved

Supply of Solvents
- Retailer interventions (eg Retailers Acting Against Solvent Use Resource Kit) Click here for more information on retailer interventions
- Av gas to replace petrol in remote communities where petrol inhalation is a problem

Intoxication Management
- Community patrols
- Safe house (ie sobering-up beds)
- Police/welfare link-up
- Truancy management

Chronic Abusers
- Rehabilitation services (click here for WA services and programs)
- Case management

Parent & Family Support
- Targeted Education (eg booklet Solvent Sniffing - An Information Guide for Parents About Glue and Other Solvent Use)
- Support for families of solvent abusers (attempt to both support families in distress as well as mobilise parents as a key resource)

Drug Education
- Use the term 'poison' rather than 'drug' when describing solvents
- Training health & welfare workers
- Young people & parents


Its schools should develop volatile substance use policies as part of their general drug management policy. Any such policy should be well distributed to teachers and support staff, practiced and regularly evaluated.

Volatile substance use should be incorporated into the schools generic drug program such as the WA School Drug Education Project (click here) .

Some features of such a school volatile substance use policy could include:

  1. Volatile substance use taught in the context of being a poison and environmental hazard rather than within the drug curriculum to:
    - reduce the association of solvents with drugs, 
    - increase negative perceptions and associations with these poisons
    - prevent accidental advertising. 
    This should commence around years 5 or 6 (ie before age 11), which is just before the age of initial experimentation.

  2. Encourage the use of alternative products to those which contain volatile substances.

  3. Provide targeted interventions for those identified as users or at known high risk of being a user.

  4. Develop inter-agency management protocols, particularly for dealing with chronic solvent users, solvent users with associated psychological/social problems, policing issues and staff education and training issues.

In addition, other protective factors include:

  1. Encourage the development of peer support programs within the school

  2. Have a well-developed truancy program

  3. Encourage positive parenting programs

  4. Have well-developed behavioural management procedures including procedures for bullying and classroom procedures which emphasise success

  5. Have adequate playground monitoring.

Alternative Activities
- Recreation
- Education & vocational (Click here for WA training, education and employment resource manual)
- Involve in community service (eg helping family, school or community projects)

Media Management
- Code of practice (Click here for media guidelines)
- Central point(s) for media contact

Link Up With Others
- Develop a working relationship with key stakeholders
- Form a committee or working party
- Discuss with your local Community Drug Service Team and/or other specialist drug service. Ring ADIS

Review, Plan, Act, Review...
- Use this action learning cycle to ensure quality and effectiveness of interventions

What not to do

- Don't support media scare stories - they accidentally advertise solvents

- Be cautious running groups for solvent users: it may reinforce a delinquent group patterns

- Don't announce solvent issues to all students - it advertises solvents
- Don't pay special attention to solvents - discuss in the context of general intoxication or the management of poisons
- Don't describe all solvents or methods of use - speak in general terms, possibly mention glue then speak generally about the 'poisons' in glue
- Be cautious about suspending students for solvent use - may be a positive reinforcement for the student and the school may be held accountable if seen to fail in its duty of care, particularly if the student is intoxicated

- Don't lecture or blame parents - provide supportive engagement where possible

Previous experience
- Don't do more of what hasn't worked in the past . Learn from mistakes and attempt something different

Sudden Sniffing Death
- Don't chase or frighten intoxicated solvent users - may cause heart failure

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Related Web Sites

    Solvents Information

To download a PowerPoint presentation with speaker notes click here
(300KB - click here for PowerPoint instructions)

Re-Solv - information about Solvent and Volatile Substance Abuse

Educari solvents web - Richard Ives & Co (UK)

The National Inhalant Prevention Coalition (NIPC) (USA)

Massachusetts Inhalant Abuse Task Force

NIDA Inhalants. Drugabuse.Gov

Media Guidelines

Retailer Interventions

Parent Support & Youth Drug Use

Working With Parents of Drug Using Children

Working With Young People and Drug Use

Young Adult Health Ages 18-25: Inhalants

The School Drug Education Project (SDEP) WA

REDI - Resilience Education and Drug Information

Aboriginal Specific

Indigenous Australian Alcohol & Other Drugs Databases NDRI

Indigenous inhalant misuse web resource and yarning place

National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation

Aboriginal Health Council of Western Australia

Indigenous Health InfoNet

DHCS - Bush Book

Central Australia Aboriginal Congress Cuz Congress

Aboriginal Drug and Alcohol Council (SA)

Searchable Drug Clearinghouse

The Australian Drug Information Network (ADIN)

Drug Info Clearinghouse

Drug Database - National Resource Centre - ADCA

SAMHSA's National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information (USA)

Click here for free download of Acrobat Reader fo PDF Files

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Other DrugNet Pages in this Subject Heading

Introduction ] Drug Chart ] Overdose ] Pregnancy ] [ Solvents Info ] Withdrawal ]

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