Volatile Substances / Solvents / Gases / Aerosols / Glues
What are volatile substances?
The use of volatile substances as drugs involves breathing in gases or vapours from household and industrial products such as aerosols and lighter refills. These substances are volatile, meaning that they evaporate and can be inhaled without burning or heating them up.
Volatile substances can cause ‘sudden sniffing death’ syndrome, where the heartbeat loses rhythm and stops (cardiac arrest).
This article does not consider ‘poppers’ (nitrite volatile substances) and nitrous oxide (laughing gas). They have their own information pages because they have different harm profiles. In particular, the users of poppers and nitrous oxide can make practical choices to reduce risks, whereas users of volatile substances face a risk of sudden death, which the user has little control over.
What are the different forms of volatile substances?
A huge range of household and industrial products contain volatile substances that can produce mind-altering effects. Most of these products are legal for legitimate use. A few examples include glues, air fresheners, hair sprays, keyboard cleaners, gas lighter fuel (butane), nail polish remover and paint stripper. Volatile substances are not grouped together because they have the same psychoactive chemicals in them; but they have in common some similar effects, and share some risks. Some products may contain more than one chemical that can change a person’s mental state, alongside many chemicals that produce no intoxicating effects but could be harmful.
Collectively, using these products as a drug is extremely high risk, but some types have their own particular risks. Pressurised aerosols produce vapour at very low temperatures and can cause frostbite (potentially in the mouth or throat). Many household products containing volatile substances also contain many other chemicals, many of which could themselves cause harm. Most of the products people inhale are highly flammable and carry the risk of accidental burning and explosions.
Users may ‘huff’ volatile substances: putting/spraying the substance onto a cloth or into a bag and then inhaling the fumes. Some users may spray a volatile substance directly into the mouth or nose, which carries a higher risk of freezing/burning/irritating the mouth, lungs and throat. Putting any bag or soaked cloth over the head or face, or in a position where it can fall over the mouth and nose adds a risk of passing out and suffocating.
How do volatile substances work as drugs in the body and brain?
The specific effects of volatile substances on the body are varied, unpredictable and not well understood. There is a wide variety of volatile substances. It is known however, that many volatile substances produce depressant effects similar to alcohol. This means they lower activity in areas of the brain.
What are the effects of volatile substance?
The effects of volatile substances vary between the substances and how much is taken among other factors. Generally speaking, a volatile substance may produce depressant effects similar to being drunk (a buzz, slurred speech, disorientation, disinhibition) although users may feel more dizziness. A stronger chemical or large amount of volatile substance may produce changes in perception and emotional disturbances.
Volatile substances are rapidly absorbed through the lungs producing immediate and short lasting effects. Because the route of entry into the blood is so quick, they can produce a quick surge of effects. The after effects of volatile substances often include headache, drowsiness, and at large doses users may pass out. Users usually come round when removed from the source of the volatile compound. Sudden death can occur from using volatile substances as a drug.
It is also possible to damage the throat and lungs after volatile substance use, resulting in excess mucus production and irritation (a nasty cough). Volatile substance users have also reported nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea.
Do volatile substances have any medical uses?
These substances have no known medical value.
What are the risks of using volatile substances? Can they be avoided or reduced?
Whilst some risks from volatile substances can be reduced, the centrally important risk of sudden death is always significant and cannot be controlled. ‘Sudden sniffing death’ syndrome is where the user has a fatal cardiac arrest (heart stops). This is thought to happen because the body becomes oversensitive to adrenaline, causing the heart to contract chaotically (arrhythmia) leading to a cardiac arrest. This can happen immediately or in the few hours after use, and seems just as likely to happen to a first time volatile substance user or a regular user.
People have also died from oxygen starvation when doing something like putting a bag full of volatile substance over their head. This makes it easy to lose consciousness and die or suffer brain damage from lack of oxygen without warning.
Additionally, a large enough amount of volatile substance may slow down and eventually stop a person breathing (respiratory depression). People have also passed out and choked on their own vomit whilst taking a volatile substance. This risk is greater if someone is taking a volatile substance on their own or in a group of people who are also incapacitated.
Are there health conditions that make volatile substances more dangerous?
Although the effects of volatile substances are not well understood, their potential effect on the heart means that it would be risky to use them if you had any sort of heart condition. Also, long term use of certain volatile substance use can cause things like brain damage, lung damage, limb spasms, liver damage and bone marrow damage. Some volatile substances might therefore worsen many different conditions.
Mixing volatile substances with other drugs
As there are so many different volatile substances, most of which contain many different chemicals, it is hard to predict possible unwanted effects of combining them with other drugs. It can be said that combining volatile substances with other depressants such as alcohol increases the risk of accidents, respiratory depression and choking on your own vomit.
How addictive are volatile substances?
There are reports that people have developed tolerance to some of the effects of volatile substances, as well as experiencing signs of dependence and withdrawal.
What are the long-term effects of volatile substances on health and wellbeing?
There are many possible side effects of long term volatile substance use. This is partly due to the diversity of products which can be used. As well as the range of drug chemicals, the products may contain hundreds of other chemicals, many of which can be harmful.
Chronic use of certain volatile substances has caused damage to the brain and nervous symptoms. Some results of this include: muscle weakness and tremor, dementia, mood changes, hearing loss, loss of coordination, and deficits in memory, attention, problem-solving, visual learning and motor function. Some volatile substances, for example butane, are not associated with such harms when used long term.
Volatile substances harm reduction advice
Most of the deaths caused by volatile substance abuse are from ‘sudden sniffing death’ syndrome (irregular heartbeat leading to a cardiac arrest). There is no known way to protect against this, it is very unpredictable and it could probably happen to anyone. Although harm reduction advice is given, please consider that volatile substance use can unpredictably cause death (even from the first use). With such short lasting and often unpleasant effects, is it ever worth the risk?
Are you using a volatile substance alone?
Because it is possible to hurt yourself whilst on a volatile substance, pass out and choke on your own vomit, or even have a cardiac arrest (‘sudden sniffing death’ syndrome) it is always less risky to do so with someone who would be able to help you out or call an ambulance. Having someone with you won’t much increase your chances if you get a volatile substance-induced cardiac arrhythmia. ‘Cardiac defibrillation’ needs to be administered by paramedics within about 10 minutes, and won’t always work.
How are you inhaling the volatile substance?
People have starved themselves of oxygen when doing something like putting a bag over their head and filling it with volatile substance. Additionally, it is very easy to damage lungs and breathing passages if trying to spray or squirt volatile substances into the mouth or nose.
What are you inhaling?
There are many different industrial and household products that could create some mind-altering effects. However, such products are not meant for human consumption and could cause you serious harm or even kill you. It is also quite likely that many such products will seriously irritate your lungs, throat and mouth if inhaled. You should never try to inhale anything if you are not sure what it will do.
Are you considering the risk of fire?
People have badly burnt themselves or been injured in explosions when a flammable substance they were trying to inhale ignited. Never put a flammable substance near a naked flame, cigarette, or anything that makes sparks.