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Background information

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What are volatile substances?

Volatile substances are chemicals that give off fumes at room temperature [1][2][3]. They are also called 'inhalants' because they are breathed (inhaled) through the mouth and nose. Volatile substance use (VSU) refers to intentionally inhaling ('sniffing', 'huffing', 'bagging' or 'chroming') these substances for the purpose of getting intoxicated (being under the influence) [4].

Volatile substances are a type of psychoactive drug. Psychoactive drugs are drugs taken for pleasure that act on the brain to alter the way we think, feel, or act. Intoxication through the use of volatile substances reduces the ability of the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) to function. The effects of a volatile substance are felt quickly after inhaling because the large surface area of the lungs allows the blood to quickly transport it to the brain [5]. This causes the level of the drug in the blood to be at its highest point within minutes of use.

There are around 250 products used in the house or for medical or industrial reasons that contain potentially intoxicating volatile substances [1]. Many of these are easily available and not expensive.

What types of volatile substances are there?

There are four groups of volatile substances [6]:

How are volatile substances inhaled?

All volatile substances are inhaled [6]. There are several different ways to inhale, including:

Who uses volatile substances?

Volatile substances are most commonly used by: [1][4]:

Why do people use volatile substances?

Volatile substances are used by people for many different reasons, including [7][8][9]:

What are the physical effects of volatile substance use?

The effects of VSU are experienced within a few minutes and only last for a short time, usually less than an hour [3]. In some cases, volatile substance use can cause serious long-term effects, even death.

Many of the harmful physical effects from VSU are reversible, especially for people who do not use volatile substances often [3][4]. The damage caused by VSU is cumulative: the more a person uses volatile substances, the most likely it is that they will have permanent brain injury [1], but not all experts agree how much damage is caused by VSU [1][3].

There are short-term and long-term physical effects of VSU [1][3][6]:

Short-term physical effects Long-term physical effects
  • a feeling of wellbeing
  • feeling tired
  • headache
  • blurred vision
  • slurred speech
  • nausea and vomiting
  • being more likely to take risks
  • agitation and aggression
  • confusion
  • hallucinations
  • loss of coordination
  • stomach pain
  • abnormal heartbeat
  • loss of consciousness
  • death
  • red, watery eyes
  • nosebleeds
  • having no energy
  • indigestion
  • dizziness
  • frequent cough
  • shortness of breath
  • ringing in the ears
  • temporary chest pain
  • stomach ulcers
  • chronic headache
  • inflammation of the area around the nose
  • attention, memory and problem solving issues
  • depression
  • loss of hearing and sight
  • lack of coordination of muscle movements
  • seizures and epilepsy (fitting)
  • weak bones
  • damage to the heart, lungs, liver and kidneys
  • brain damage
  • Parkinson's disease
  • some cancers

Sudden sniffing death

Some inhalants can cause 'sudden sniffing death' which is death from cardiac arrest (when the heart stops beating) [1][10]. Certain inhalants contain gases that make the myocardium (muscle tissue of the heart) sensitise to adrenaline (a hormone involved the body's reaction to stress). In this state, a sudden surge of adrenaline (for example, from a frightening hallucination or intense physical activity) can cause an irregular heartbeat that can be fatal. Sudden sniffing death can happen after a single use and is associated with inhaling butane, propane, and the chemicals found in aerosols [6].


People who inhale petrol can die as a result of asphyxiation (dying because they cannot breathe). The oxygen in the lungs is displaced by the inhaled petrol gases which can stop the user from breathing [1][11]. Inhaling petrol from a bag or in a restricted space (such as under a blanket) increases the risk of death from asphyxiation. The risk of death from asphyxiation also applies to Opal fuel [12]. Spraying volatile substances directly into the mouth may also cause asphyxiation because the cooling agents in the aerosol propellant freeze the larynx (voice box) [13].

Brain function problems

VSU is related to a variety of problems with brain functioning, including [14][15][16][17]:

The severity of problems can range from mild impairment to severe issues like dementia and Parkinson's disease [14][15][16][17]. Brain functioning problems from VSU seem to be cumulative: the more a person uses volatile substances, the worse the brain injury. Evidence suggests that it is possible to recover from VSU, but only if the person stops before any major damage has been done [18][19][20][21].

Volatile substances during pregnancy

If volatile substances are used by pregnant women, the chemicals may affect their unborn babies [22]. Problems associated with VSU during pregnancy include:

What are the social effects of volatile substance use?

VSU is associated with a variety of social harms that can affect the person who uses volatile substances, their families, their communities, and wider society [1]. While it is not possible to say that VSU causes social problems, VSU is associated with many social issues, including [1][4]:


  1. d'Abbs P, Maclean S (2008) Volatile substance misuse: a review of interventions. Barton, ACT: Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing
  2. MacLean S, D'abbs PH (2006) Will modifying inhalants reduce volatile substance misuse? A review. Drugs: Education, Prevention, and Policy; 13(5): 423-439
  3. Parliament of Victoria Drugs and Crime Prevention Committee (2002) Inquiry into the inhalation of volatile substances: final report. Melbourne: Parliament of Victoria
  4. Consensus-based clinical practice guideline for the management of volatile substance use in Australia (2011) National Health and Medical Research Council
  5. Wille SMR, Lambert WEE (2004) Volatile substance abuse—post-mortem diagnosis. Forensic Science International; 142(2-3): 135-156
  6. National Institute on Drug Abuse (2005) Research report series – inhalant abuse. Maryland: National Institute on Drug Abuse
  7. Carroll A, Houghton S, Odgers P (1998) Volatile solvent use among Western Australian adolescents. Adolescence; 33(132): 877–889
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  9. Brady M (1992) Heavy metal: the social meaning of petrol sniffing in Australia. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press
  10. Bass M (1970) Sudden sniffing death. Journal of the American Medical Association; 212(12): 2075-2079
  11. National Institute on Drug Abuse (2012) NIDA InfoFacts: inhalants. Retrieved 2010 from
  12. Cavanagh G (2008) Inquest into the death of Kenny Malthouse. Hermannsburg, NT: Coroner's Court, Northern Territory
  13. Chalmers E (1991) Volatile substance abuse. Medical Journal of Australia; 154(Feb 18): 269-274
  14. National Inhalant Abuse Taskforce (2005) National Directions on Inhalant Abuse: consultation paper. Melbourne: National Inhalant Abuse Taskforce
  15. Hageman G, van der Hoek J, van Hout M, van der Laan G, Steur EJ, de Bruin W, Herholz K (1999) Parkinsonism, pyramidal signs, polyneuropathy, and cognitive decline after long-term occupational solvent exposure. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry; 246(3): 198-206
  16. Pezzoli G, Canesi M, Antonini A, Righini A, Perbellini L, Barichella M, Mariani CB, Tenconi F, Tesei S, Zecchinelli A, Leenders KL (2000) Hydrocarbon exposure and Parkinson's disease. Neurology; 55(5): 667-673
  17. Ramón MF, Ballesteros S, Martinez‐Arrieta R, Jorrecilla JM, Cabrera J (2003) Volatile substance and other drug abuse inhalation in Spain. Clinical Toxicology; 41(7): 931–936
  18. Cairney S, Maruff P, Burns CB, Currie J, Currie B (2004) Neurological and cognitive impairment associated with leaded gasoline encephalopathy. Drug and Alcohol Dependence; 73(2): 183-188
  19. Cairney S, Maruff P, Burns CB, Currie J, Currie BJ (2004) Saccade dysfunction associated with chronic petrol sniffing and lead encephalopathy. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry; 75(3): 472-476
  20. Cairney S, Maruff P, Burns CB, Currie J, Currie BJ (2005) Neurological and cognitive recovery following abstinence from petrol sniffing. Neuropsychopharmacology; 30(5): 1019-1027
  21. Rosenberg NL, Sharp CW (1997) Solvent toxicity: a neurological focus. Substance Use & Misuse; 32(12-13): 1859-1864
  22. Jones H, BalsterR (1998) Inhalant abuse in pregnancy. Obstetrics & Gynecology Clinics of North America; 25: 153-167

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