Volatile substances are chemicals that give off fumes at room temperature . 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) .
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 . 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 . Many of these are easily available and not expensive.
There are four groups of volatile substances :
All volatile substances are inhaled . There are several different ways to inhale, including:
The effects of VSU are experienced within a few minutes and only last for a short time, usually less than an hour . 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 . 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 , but not all experts agree how much damage is caused by VSU .
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Some inhalants can cause 'sudden sniffing death' which is death from cardiac arrest (when the heart stops beating) . 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 .
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 . 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 . Spraying volatile substances directly into the mouth may also cause asphyxiation because the cooling agents in the aerosol propellant freeze the larynx (voice box) .
The severity of problems can range from mild impairment to severe issues like dementia and Parkinson's disease . 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 .
If volatile substances are used by pregnant women, the chemicals may affect their unborn babies . Problems associated with VSU during pregnancy include:
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 . While it is not possible to say that VSU causes social problems, VSU is associated with many social issues, including :
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