What are inhalants?
Inhalants are common household, industrial and medical products that produce vapours, which some people inhale (breathe in) to make them feel intoxicated or 'high'.1
Some common inhalants include:
- Aerosol spray
- Chrome-based paint
- Paint and paint thinner
- Felt-tipped pens
- Correction fluid (e.g. 'Liquid Paper')
- Gas from lighters or barbecues (butane)
- Cleaning fluid
- Nitrous oxide 1
Glue, gas, gasoline, sniff, huff, chroming, poppers.
How are they used?
Inhalants are breathed in through the nose or mouth.
They may be sprayed into a plastic bag, poured into a bottle or soaked onto a cloth or sleeve before being inhaled.
Sometime they are inhaled directly from the container or are sprayed directly into the mouth or nose. This method is very dangerous because it can cause suffocation.2
Effects of inhalants
There is no safe level of drug use. Use of any drug always carries some risk. It's important to be careful when taking any type of drug.
Inhalants affect everyone differently, based on:
- Size, weight and health
- Whether the person is used to taking it
- Whether other drugs are taken around the same time
- The amount taken
- The strength of the drug
- Amount of fresh air breathed while sniffing
- Amount of physical activity before and after sniffing
Sniffing can cause:
- Pneumonia from inhaling vomit
- Brain damage
- Abnormal heart rhythm
- Sudden death
- Asphyxiation (if using a plastic bag)7
Sniffing is always risky, but some situations make it even more dangerous:
- Sniffing in an enclosed space or indoors
- Running or doing other physical activity after sniffing (could cause death due to cardiac sensitisation)
- Mixing sniffing with medicines or illegal drugs
- Sniffing when the person has other health problems7
If the substance is inhaled many times or a particularly strong inhalant is used, it could cause an overdose. If any of the following effects are experienced an ambulance should be called straight away by dialling triple zero (000). Ambulance officers don't need to involve the police.
- Nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea
- Irregular heartbeat
- Chest pain
- Blackout, seizures and coma1,3
Sudden sniffing death
Inhaling aerosol sprays, cleaning and correction fluids, and model aeroplane cement has been known to cause sudden death. It is believed that chemicals in these products can cause heart failure, particularly if the person is stressed or does heavy exercise after inhaling. This is very rare.4
Low aromatic fuels
Unleaded petrol has been replaced by low aromatic fuels such as 'Opal' in some rural and remote communities in Australia. Sniffing low aromatic fuels does not produce a 'high', but can still cause damage to a person's health including death.5
See Reducing harms of fuel inhalation with low aromatic fuel.
In the days after inhalant use, the following may be experienced:
- Mental numbness1
Regular use of inhalants may eventually cause:
- Irritability and depression
- Memory loss
- Reduced attention span and ability to think clearly
- Pimples around the mouth and lips
- Pale appearance
- Weight loss
- Excessive thirst
- Loss of sense of smell and hearing
- Problems with blood production, which may result in anaemia, irregular heartbeat, heart muscle damage
- Chest pain and angina
- Indigestion and stomach ulcers
- Liver and kidney damage
- Needing to use more to get the same effect
- Dependence on inhalants
- Financial, work and social problems1,3
Most of these long-term effects can be reversed if use is stopped. However, some inhalants, such as cleaning products, correction fluid, aerosol sprays and petrol can cause permanent damage.4
Some chemicals can build up in the body and damage the stomach, intestines, brain, nervous system, kidneys and liver.4
Using inhalants with other drugs
The effects of taking inhalants with other drugs – including over-the-counter or prescribed medications – can be unpredictable and dangerous, and could include:
- Inhalants + alcohol, benzodiazepines or opiates: enormous strain on the body, and can affect breathing rate and may increase the risk of passing out and suffocating or choking on vomit.6
Giving up inhalants after using them for a long time is challenging because the body has to get used to functioning without them. Withdrawal symptoms usually start 24-48 hours after the last use, and may last for 2 to 5 days.4 These symptoms can include:
- Headache, nausea and stomach pain
- Tiredness, shakiness, tremors
- Hallucinations and visual disorders, such as seeing spots3
Information about withdrawal
Reducing the risks
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1. Brands B; Sproule B; & Marshman J. (Eds.) (1998) Drugs & Drug Abuse (3rd Ed.) Ontario: Addiction Research Foundation.
2. Drugs and Crime Prevention Committee. (2002). Inquiry into the Inhalation of Volatile Substances discussion paper.
3. Campbell, A. (2001). The Australian Illicit Drug Guide. Melbourne: Black Inc.
4. Julien, R., Advokat, C., & Comaty, J. (Eds.). (2011). A primer of drug action (12th Ed.). New York: Worth Publishing.
5. Australian Government. (2012). Low aromatic fuel.
6. Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs. (2012). Volatile Substances / Solvents / Gases / Aerosols / Glues.
7. National Health and Medical Research Council (NHRMC). (2011). Caring for people who sniff petrol or other volatile substances: a quick reference guide for health workers.
Last reviewed: 18 May 2016