About Inhalants

On this page:  What are inhalantsEffects of inhalants | Dependence, tolerance, withdrawal | Occupational hazards  

Please note: The information on this page, while sourced from reputable publications is not intended to replace the information or advice given by a medical practitioner. 

You may know it as volatile solvent abuse, volatile substance misuse, petrol, paint or glue sniffing, chroming, huffing or dusting; there are many different terms in use in the Australian community, and also internationally, that refer to inhalant abuse.

What are inhalants?

The term ‘inhalants’ is used to describe a group of household, industrial or medical products that are inhaled with the intention of producing a mind altering or blood vessel dilating effect.  The term refers specifically to those substances that are never taken in any other form other than by inhalation.  There is no safe level of inhalant use.

Categorising inhalants is difficult because of the variety of chemicals found in these products, and also the fact that these chemicals can have a range of different effects and are contained in a number of ways.  A commonly used classification system sorts inhalants into 4 categories: volatile solvents, aerosols, gases and nitrites.   

Volatile solvents 
A volatile solvent is a liquid or semi-solid solvent that vapourises at room temperature, giving off fumes. There are volatile solvents in many commonly known products including petrol, glue, correction fluid, felt-tip markers, nail polish remover, degreasers, dry-cleaning fluids, and paint thinners and removers.  Inhalation of volatile solvents acts to depress the central nervous system resulting temporarily in a pleasurable effect.  Common side effects include headaches and nausea.

Aerosols 
Inhalants in the aerosol category are products that usually contain both volatile solvents and a propellant gas contained under pressure. Intoxication can be as a result of the solvent, the propellant or a combination of both.  Examples of aerosols include spray paint, hair spray, deodorant sprays, computer cleaning sprays, cream whippets and fabric protector sprays.  Inhalation of aerosols acts to depress the central nervous system resulting temporarily in a pleasurable effect.  Common side effects include headaches and nausea.

Gases  
All inhalants in this category are in a gaseous form.  These include products used in medical anesthetics such as ether, chloroform and nitrous oxide as well as household and industrial gases found in fuels, refrigerants and fire extinguishers.  Inhalation of gases acts to depress the central nervous system resulting temporarily in a pleasurable effect.  Common side effects include headaches and nausea.

Nitrites 
Inhalants in the nitrite category are slightly different from those in the other categories.  Their main effect is not to depress the central nervous system but instead they are vasodilators and muscle relaxants.  For this reason they are commonly used to increase sexual pleasure. Common side effects include headaches and nausea. Popularly known as ‘poppers’, they are often labeled as room odorisers or video head cleaners.   

Examples of inhalants and their chemical components:
(Please note this is not an exhaustive list and ingredients may vary between brands)

    Category

    Inhalant

    Chemicals

    Adhesives

    Airplane glue

    Toluene, ethyl acetate

    Other glues

    Toluene, n-hexane, acetone, benzene, methyl chloride, methyl ethyl ketone, methyl butyl ketone

    Aerosols

    Hair spray

    Butane, propane

    Deodorants

    Butane, propane

    Spray paint

    Butane, propane, fluorocarbons, toluene, Trichloroethylene

    Fabric protector spray

    Butane, trichloroethane

    Computer cleaners

    Dimethyl ether, butane, propane, n-hexane

    Asthma sprays

    chlorofluorocarbons

    Anesthetics

    Gaseous

    Nitrous oxide

    Liquid

    Halothane, enflurane

    Local

    Ethyl chloride

    Cleaning agents

    Dry cleaners

    Tetrachloroethylene, trichloroethane, n-hexane

    Spot removers

    Xylene, petroleum distillates, chlorohydrocarbons

    Degreasers

    Tetrachloroethylene, trichloroethane, trichloroethylene

    Video head cleaners

    Amyl nitrite,  butyl nitrite, cyclohexyl nitrite

    Solvents

    Nail polish removers

    Acetone, ethyl acetate, toluene

    Paint remover/thinners

    Toluene, methylene chloride, methanol, acetone, ethyl acetate, xylene, Trichloroethylene, petroleum distillates

    Correction fluids and thinners

    Trichloroethane, trichloroethylene

    Permanent marker pens

    xylene

    Petrol

    Benzene, toluene, n-hexane, xylene, possibly lead

    Gases

    Fuel gas

    Butane, propane

    Cigarette lighter fuel

    Butane, propane

    Refrigerant

    Freon

    Food products

    Whipped cream aerosols (whippets)

    Nitrous oxide

    Nitrites

    Poppers, fluids, room odorisers

    Amyl nitrite,  butyl nitrite, cyclohexyl nitrite

    Source:

    Sharp, C.W & Rosenberg, N.L,  Inhalants, In Lowinson, J., Ruiz, P., Millman, R., Langrod, J 2005, Substance abuse: a comprehensive textbook, Ch. 20, pp. 336- 366, Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Philadelphia, PA.

    Crowley, T.J & Sakai, J.T. Inhalants, In Galanter, M & Kleber, H.D (eds) 2004, The American psychiatric publishing textbook of substance abuse treatment, 3rd edition, Ch 21, pp. 247-255, American Psychiatric Publishing, Inc, Arlington, VA.

 
Effects of using inhalants

Inhalants are consumed either through the nose or mouth by three main methods.

    1. Direct spraying/inhalation from the container.
    2. Soaking a cloth with the inhalant and holding over or placing in the mouth.
    3. Pouring or spraying the inhalant into a bag and inhaling from the bag.

The chemicals found in inhalants are rapidly absorbed through the lungs into the blood stream, accumulating in fat rich organs such as the brain. There is no safe level of inhalant use. With the exception of the nitrites, the majority of inhalants produce an effect that depresses the central nervous system resulting in feelings of euphoria and disinhibition, similar to alcohol intoxication. Use of the nitrite group of inhalants results in an increased heart rate, dilated blood vessels and also acts as a muscle relaxant.  With all inhalants, intoxication only last for a short time, often resulting in users repeating the exposure to maintain the effect.  

The effects of inhalants can vary with the type of inhalant used, whether it is used in isolation or combination with other inhalants or other drugs, and the amount of intoxication.  The side effects of inhalant use increase in severity with prolonged or intensive use; however death is also a possibility after using inhalants for the first time.  “Sudden sniffing death” occurs as a result of heart failure induced by inhalant use (usually butane or propane).  Death may also occur as a result of asphyxiation, suffocation, choking, or accident suffered while intoxicated. 

Short term or low level use Excitement, disinhibition, hallucinations

 

 

 

 Increasing level
of complexity
of effects
with increasing
level of
inhalant
use
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 Lightheadedness, headache
 Agitation, apathy
 Nausea, vomiting
 Drowsiness, disorientation
 Loss of coordination, slurred speech
 Depressed reflexes
 Burns / skin irritations
 Weight loss
 Hearing loss
 Muscle weakness
 Kidney / liver damage
 Irregular heart rhythms leading to heart failure
 Brain and central nervous system damage
Long term or high level use  Coma
May happen regardless of level of use  Death - “sudden sniffing death” or from other system failure or accident

Source:
Crowley, T.J & Sakai, J.T. Inhalants, In Galanter, M & Kleber, H.D (eds) 2004, The American psychiatric publishing textbook of substance abuse treatment, 3rd edition, Ch 21, pp. 247-255, American Psychiatric Publishing, Inc, Arlington, VA. 

Dillon, Paul 2003, Inhalants, The National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC), Sydney, NSW 

National Institute on Drug Abuse (n.d.), Inhalants, viewed 26 April 2012. [website]

Sharp, C.W & Rosenberg, N.L., Inhalants, In Lowinson, J., Ruiz, P., Millman, R., Langrod, J. Substance abuse: a comprehensive textbook, Ch. 20, pp. 336- 366, Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Philadelphia, PA.


Are you struggling with medical terms when you read articles about inhalants?  Then view or print out our Medical Jargon PDF [pdf - 122 kB].

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Dependence, Tolerance and Withdrawal

It is possible to become both physically and psychologically dependant on inhalants.  In addition to this, many users develop tolerance to the substance they are using.  This means it requires more of the substance to achieve the same high. 
MyDr.com.au, Inhalants: dependence, tolerance and treatment   [website]

 

 
Occupational hazards

While this website deals with the abuse of inhalants, occupational exposure to inhalants is also a potential hazard. 

In an emergency call an ambulance (triple zero - 000). 
Call the Poison Information Service on 13 11 26 (Australia wide) if you have symptoms after being exposed to an inhalant.

For more information about occupational exposure visit UNIONSAFE: Solvents at work   [website]

Page last updated 14 October 2013

 

 

 
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