Inhalants are a range of products (many of which are familiar household items) which, when vaporised and inhaled, may cause the user to feel intoxicated or ‘high’. Like alcohol, inhalants are ‘depressants’, which doesn’t necessarily mean that they make you feel depressed. They slow down the activity of the brain and central nervous system. The messages are slowed down going to and from the brain to the body, including physical, mental and emotional responses.
Glue, gas, sniff, huff, chroming (as in the use of chrome paint), poppers.
Who uses inhalants?
Teenagers are identified as the most prevalent group of inhalant users. Some adults involved in the ‘dance scene’ also use inhalants to heighten their experience. There are three broad categories of people who use inhalants:
The experimenter: The majority of teenagers fall into this category. They try it once or twice then stop by themselves.
Social/situational user: Usually done with a group of friends. The amount of use varies, depending on what else is going on in their lives. These users often develop other interests and grow out of this practice.
The long-term, dependent user: A small number of inhalant users go on to use on a regular basis over a long time. They generally have other major problems in their lives. They may use inhalants alone, or with other people who use regularly. They may feel bad about using, but feel unable to give it up. For some it is one of their few pleasures.
Why do young people use inhalants?
Reasons young people give for using inhalants are often very similar to the reasons adults give for using alcohol and tobacco.
Some reasons include:
- to have fun
- for excitement
- for intoxication
- to be part of the group
- to shock adults
- to deal with problems
- to copy the behaviour of adults using alcohol
- as an alternative to alcohol
- easily available
- cheap to purchase
- they’re legal.
Inhalant use in Australia
- In 1998, 3.9% of Australians had used inhalants at some time in their life. 1
- 0.8% of Australians had used inhalants recently (in the past 12 months) in 1998. 1
- Reported use of inhalants was more common among younger students than older students. While 26% of all students had used inhalants at some point in their lives, more 12-year-olds (32%) than 17-year-olds (15%) had used them at some point in their lives. 2
More on drug statistics
1 1998 National Drug Strategy Household Survey, First results, August 1999, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Canberra.
2Australian Secondary Students’ use of over-the-counter and illicit substances in 1996, Centre for Behavioural Research in Cancer, Anti-Cancer Council of Victoria, November 1998.
The effects of any drug (including inhalants) vary from person to person. It depends on many factors including an individual’s size, weight and health, how much and how the drug is taken, whether the person is used to taking it and whether other drugs are taken. It also depends on the environment in which the drug is used – for example, whether the person is alone, with others, or at a party.
Small amounts of inhalants can affect you quite quickly, due to their rapid entry into the bloodstream through the lungs.
Immediate/short term effects
Following are some of the immediate and short-term effects that can be experienced when using inhalants:
- Less inhibited: Like alcohol, feeling less inhibited, laughter, becoming excited and generally feeling intoxicated are effects felt within 3 to 5 minutes of using inhalants. A sustained ‘high’ can be achieved by repeated use.
- Excitement: Your mood can vary from mild excitement to euphoria. Sometimes you may become agitated and uneasy.
- Drowsiness: The initial excitement is often followed by drowsiness.
- Flu-like symptoms: Inhalants may cause sneezing, coughing, glazed eyes or a runny nose, like having a cold or the flu.
- Sickness: Inhalants can make people feel sick and have diarrhoea.
- Unpleasant breath: After using inhalants people often have the smell of the product on their breath.
- Nosebleeds and sores: Inhalants may also cause nosebleeds, bloodshot eyes, and sores around the mouth and nose.
- Reckless behaviour: Sometimes people do reckless or dangerous things after using inhalants, which may cause serious accidents.
These effects are usually over within an hour of inhaling. Hangovers and headaches may occur after the immediate effects have passed. Sometimes these last for several days although they are usually less common and less severe than hangovers caused by alcohol.
In greater quantities
If large amounts of inhalants are inhaled, disorientation and lack of coordination can occur. Other possible side effects include visual distortions and even blacking out.
With short-term use, most products rarely cause damage to the body. However some glue sniffers have been admitted to hospital, unable to control their movements or speak properly, and sometimes have convulsions. Most of these symptoms clear within a few hours. Some people may experience problems with their breathing passages, but even this improves over time.
Almost all young people who try inhalants only use them once or twice. They do not go on to become regular users. However, some people do use inhalants heavily and frequently, and may experience the following effects:
- Health problems: Long-term users may appear pale, have tremors, lose weight, feel tired and be unusually thirsty. They may also have anaemia, because some inhalants affect the production of blood.
- The lead in petrol, and some of the chemicals in other inhalants, may build up in the body. This irritates the lining of the stomach and intestines and can cause damage to the brain, nervous system, kidneys and liver. Prolonged and heavy use may even cause stupor or coma, problems with breathing, irregular heartbeat and sometimes seizures.
- Logical thinking: They may also be forgetful and less able to think clearly or logically.
- Irritable: They may be irritable, hostile, depressed or feel persecuted.
As well as the other health risks associated with inhaling, chroming, in particular, can cause eye problems. Blood vessels can burst in the eyes, making them completely red, eventually leading to blindness.
Most long-term effects are not permanent and are reversed if use is stopped. However, cleaning products, correction fluid and aerosol sprays can cause permanent damage.
Permanent brain damage is rare, but can occur if people use inhalants heavily for a long period of time.
Drinking alcohol as well as using inhalants can increase the damage to the body.
A small number of people have died from using inhalants.
The main danger comes from accidents when ‘high’, such as suffocation caused using plastic bags to inhale, choking on vomit when unconscious, and behaving recklessly.
‘Sudden sniffing death’ has followed the use of aerosol sprays, cleaning and correction fluids, and model aeroplane cement. It is believed that chemicals in these products can cause heart failure, particularly if the user is stressed or does heavy exercise after inhaling. This is very rare.
Tolerance and dependence
Tolerance does develop with regular use of inhalants.
Dependence (psychological and physical) among users is rare considering the total number who have tried inhalants.
With regular use of inhalants psychological dependence can occur. People psychologically dependent on inhalants find that using them becomes far more important than other activities in their life. They crave using and will find it very difficult to stop.
Chronic abuse of inhalants may result in physical dependence. This means the body gets used to functioning with the inhalant present. Abruptly stopping use can cause withdrawal symptoms.
Withdrawal symptoms due to abrupt cessation of inhalant use are usually mild but in some cases severe symptoms can occur. The symptoms following abrupt termination of use can be anxiety, depression, loss of appetite, irritation, aggressive behaviour, dizziness, tremors and nausea.
In Australia, there are a number of drug treatment options. Some aim solely for the user to achieve a drug-free lifestyle. Others recognise abstinence as one option, however, due to individual circumstances, may not be possible in certain situations. The overall aim of these programs is to reduce the harm/risks related to a person’s drug use.
Treatment is more effective if tailored to suit a person’s specific situation and usually involves a combination of methods. The different options include individual counselling, group therapy, medication and supervised/home withdrawal.
Inhaling glues and aerosols during pregnancy can harm the baby. The most likely result will be early labour, a premature baby and the associated breathing problems, and risk of infection.
Check with your doctor, or other health professional, if you are taking or planning to take any substances during pregnancy, including prescribed and over-the-counter medications.
Inhalants and driving
It is illegal to drive while under the influence of any drug (including inhalants). Breaking this law carries penalties including disqualification from driving, fines and/or imprisonment.
It is also unsafe to drive after using inhalants. They affect the ability to judge speed and distance and coordination is greatly reduced. Inhalants can make you reckless, making you more likely to take dangerous risks.
Inhalants and the law
Most inhalants are common household products, so it is not practical to make them illegal and it would not help protect young people from harm.
However, it is illegal for shopkeepers to sell products to someone if they believe that they are to be used for inhaling.
What can parents do?
There are no clear signs or symptoms that identify solvent use.
Some indications are:
- finding unusual amounts of glues, solvents or aerosol containers in your child’s possession
- chemical smells on clothes or breath
- unexpected and rapid ‘drunken’ behaviour
- sores around the nose and mouth.
If you think your child may be using inhalants:
- Try not to panic: Try to stay calm, even though it can be difficult, so your child is more likely to discuss their problem with you.
- Talk and listen: Find out what is happening. Really listen to what your child is saying and try to understand things from their point of view. They may only be experimenting.
- Show your concern: Make it clear that you are concerned because you love them, and want them to be safe.
- Seek professional help: If your child is regularly using inhalants, they need your help and support.
What to do in a crisis
If someone has an adverse reaction while using inhalants, it is very important that they receive professional help as soon as possible. Quick responses can save lives.
- Immediately remove the obstruction to their breathing (e.g. plastic bag)
- Call an ambulance. Dial 000. Don’t delay because you think you or your friend might get into trouble. Ambulance officers are not obliged to involve the police.
- Stay with the person until the ambulance arrives. Find out if anyone at the scene knows mouth-to-mouth resuscitation or cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).
- Ensure adequate air by keeping crowds back and opening windows. Loosen tight clothing.
- If the person is unconscious, don’t leave them on their back â€” they could choke. Turn them on their side and into the recovery position. Gently tilt their head back so their tongue does not block the airway.
- If breathing has stopped, give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. If there is no pulse, apply CPR.
- Provide the ambulance officers with as much information as you can what inhalants were taken, how long ago, and any pre-existing medical conditions.
- Before using inhalants, make sure you and your friends know what to do in a crisis.