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Inhalant factsInhalants. Examples of product that could be misused as inhalants. © Australian Drug Foundation, 2010.

What are inhalants?

Effects of inhalants

Tolerance and dependence

Getting help

Inhalant use in Australia

 

 

What are inhalants?

Inhalants are a range of products that produce vapours which, when inhaled, may cause the person to feel intoxicated or 'high'.

Inhalants are depressant drugs. This means that they slow down the activity of the central nervous system and the messages going between the brain and the body. They do not necessarily make a person feel depressed.

Other depressants include alcohol, cannabis, benzodiazepines and heroin.

Other names

Glue, gas, sniff, huff, chroming, poppers.

What do inhalants look like? 

Inhalants come in a variety of forms, such as aerosols, liquids or semi-solids. Some of the most common are:

  • aerosol spray cans
  • chrome-based paint
  • gas from lighters or barbeques (butane)
  • cleaning fluid
  • correction fluid (liquid paper)
  • paint or paint thinner
  • felt-tipped pens
  • glue
  • petrol
  • nitrous oxide.


In some remote communities in Australia, standard unleaded petrol is being replaced by Opal fuel. Opal fuel does not produce a 'high' when sniffed; however, it can still have serious effects on a person’s health.

Inhalants can be divided into four main groups:

  1. Volatile solvents are liquids or semi-solids, such as glues. They are usually common household and industrial products such as paint thinners and removers, dry-cleaning fluids, degreasers, petrol and correction fluid.
  2. Aerosols are sprays that contain propellants and solvents and include spray paints, deodorants and hairsprays, insect sprays and vegetable oils.
  3. Gases include medical anaesthetics and gases used in household or commercial products such as refrigerants and fire extinguishers.
  4. Nitrites such as amyl, butyl and isobutyl nitrite (together known as alkyl nitrites or poppers) are clear, yellow liquids.

How are they used?

The drug is inhaled through the nose or mouth. It may be sprayed into a plastic bag, poured into a bottle or soaked onto a cloth or sleeve before being inhaled.

Some drugs are also inhaled directly from the container. Sometimes they are sprayed directly into the mouth or nose. This method is very dangerous because it can cause suffocation.

Effects of inhalants 

The effects of any drug (including inhalants) vary from person to person. How inhalants affect a person depends on many things including their size, weight and health, also whether the person is used to taking it and whether other drugs are taken. The effects of any drug also depend on the amount taken.

There is no safe level of drug use. Use of any drug always carries some risk—even medications can produce unwanted side effects. It is important to be careful when taking any type of drug.

Immediate effects

The effects of inhalants may start to be felt immediately and can last for 45 minutes.

Low to moderate doses  

Some of the effects that may be experienced after taking inhalants include:

  • initial 'rush' or 'high'
  • feeling of wellbeing
  • lowered inhibitions
  • excited, euphoric, giggling and laughing
  • agitated, uneasy and aggressive
  • hallucinations and delusions
  • confusion and disorientation
  • impaired judgement
  • drowsiness
  • headaches
  • drowsiness
  • bloodshot, glazed eyes
  • blurred vision
  • nosebleeds
  • runny nose
  • sneezing
  • unpleasant breath
  • slurred speech
  • irregular heart beat
  • chest pain
  • nausea and vomiting
  • diarrhoea
  • slurred speech
  • impaired coordination and muscle control (ataxia).

Higher doses  

A higher dose of inhalants can increase the chances of:

  • feeling disorientated
  • decreased coordination
  • visual distortions
  • nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea
  • headaches
  • bloodshot eyes
  • increased confidence which can lead to risky behaviour
  • hallucinations
  • blackout, convulsions, coma.


Sudden sniffing death

'Sudden sniffing death' has followed the use of aerosol sprays, cleaning and correction fluids, and model aeroplane cement. It is believed that chemicals in these products can cause heart failure, particularly if the user is stressed or does heavy exercise after inhaling. This is very rare.

Coming down

As the effects of inhalants begin to wear off, a person may experience effects such as headache, nausea and dizziness. These effects can last for a number of days.

Long-term effects 

People who use inhalants long-term may experience the following effects:

  • pimples around the mouth and lips
  • pale appearance
  • tremors
  • weight loss
  • tiredness
  • excessive thirst
  • loss of sense of smell and hearing
  • problems with blood production, which may result in problems such as anaemia, irregular heartbeat and damage to the heart muscle
  • forgetfulness and memory impairment
  • reduced attention and ability to think clearly and logically
  • liver and kidney damage
  • irritability, hostility, feeling depressed or feeling persecuted
  • chest pain or angina
  • indigestion
  • stomach ulcers.


Most long-term effects are not permanent and can be reversed if use is stopped. However, some inhalants such as cleaning products, correction fluid, aerosol sprays and petrol can cause permanent damage, especially if people use them heavily for a long period.

Some of the chemicals in inhalants may build up in the body. They can irritate the stomach and the intestines, and can cause damage to the brain, nervous system, kidneys and liver.

Other effects of inhalant use

Using inhalants with other drugs 

The chances of an overdose are increased if inhalants are taken with other depressant drugs such as alcohol, benzodiazepines or opiates. Using inhalants with other depressants can affect breathing rate and the heart and blood vessels. Mixing drugs can also increase the risk of passing out and suffocating or choking on vomit.

Pregnancy and breastfeeding

Read about the effects of drugs on pregnancy and breastfeeding.

Driving

Read about the effects of drugs on driving.

Tolerance and dependence

People who use inhalants regularly can develop dependence and tolerance to them, which means they need to take larger amounts of inhalants to get the same effect.

Evidence suggests that long-term use of inhalants can lead to a psychological dependence. People who are dependent on inhalants find that using the drug becomes far more important than other activities in their life. They crave the drug and find it very difficult to stop using it. People may find they feel an urge to use them when they are in specific surroundings or socialising with friends.

Withdrawal

Giving up inhalants after using them for a long time is challenging because the body has to get used to functioning without them. Mild symptoms begin 24–48 hours after stopping use, and may last from 2–5 days. Symptoms may include:

  • Hangover
  • Headache, nausea, stomach pain
  • Tiredness, shakiness, tremors
  • Cramps
  • Hallucinations and visual disorders, such as seeing spots.

Getting help 

In Australia, there are many different types of treatments for drug problems. Some aim to help a person to stop using a drug, while others aim to reduce the risks and harm related to their drug use.

Find out more about treatment.

What to do if you are concerned about someone’s inhalant use 

If you are concerned about someone's drug use, there is help available. Contact the alcohol and drug information service in your state or territory.

What to do in a crisis

Always call triple zero (000) if a drug overdose is known or suspected—and remember that paramedics are not obliged to involve the police.

If someone overdoses or has an adverse reaction while using inhalants, it is very important that they receive professional help as soon as possible. A quick response can save their life.

Visit the Better Health Channel to read St John Ambulance’s advice on drug overdose.

Inhalant use in Australia

Statistics 

Find statistics about the use of inhalants in Australia.

Inhalants and the law

Inhalant use is not a criminal offence in any Australian state or territory.

In recent years, some Australian states and territories have revised police powers to intervene in inhalant use in two main ways. Police are authorised to:

  • take away inhalants and related equipment
  • pick up young people engaged in inhalant use and release them into the care of a responsible person or a place of safety.


It is also illegal in some states and territories for shopkeepers to sell products to someone if they believe they are to be used for inhaling.

Please note: This information does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon in this way. The information is correct at the time of publication. For information specific to your situation contact a legal aid service in your state or territory.

Read more about drugs and the law.

National drug policy

Australia’s national drug policy is based on harm minimisation. Strategies to minimise harm include encouraging people to avoid using a drug through to helping people to reduce the risk of harm if they do use a drug. It aims to reduce all types of drug-related harm to both the individual and the community.

Educational resources on inhalants

Download a fact sheet on inhalants.

Find free resources on inhalants.

Search the ADF Shop for resources on inhalants.

This information has been adapted from the pamphlet How Drugs Affect You: Inhalants, produced by the Australian Drug Foundation. For single copies of this pamphlet contact DrugInfo. Multiple copies are available from the ADF Bookshop.

Last updated:  10 January 2013

 
Information you heard is intended as a general guide only. This audio is copyrighted by the Australian Drug Foundation. Visit www.DrugInfo.ADF.org.au for more