Alcohol, drugs and tobacco

Volatile substances and your health

Volatile substances give off fumes or vapours that can cause damage to the brain and other side effects when inhaled.

This is called volatile substance abuse (VSA).

Examples of volatile substances include:

  • petrol
  • lighter fuels
  • spray paint
  • glue
  • correction fluids.

To find out more about volatile substances, go to the Alcohol and Drug Foundation website.

Effects of sniffing

Inhaled chemicals are quickly absorbed through the lungs into the bloodstream and are spread to the brain and other organs.

Within minutes, the user experiences intoxication, with symptoms similar to those caused by drinking alcohol.

As the intoxication lasts only a few minutes, some users prolong the effect by continuing to inhale repeatedly.

Sniffing is always risky, but some situations make it even more dangerous, including:

  • sniffing in an enclosed space or indoors
  • running or doing other physical activity after sniffing - this could cause death due to cardiac sensitisation
  • mixing sniffing with medicines or illegal drugs
  • sniffing when you have other health problems.

Risk of sudden death

Cardiac arrest is a significant risk of sniffing inhalants.

Immediately after inhaling, the user can experience arrhythmia, the irregular muscle contraction of the heart.

If the user doesn't receive immediate medical attention, the heart can lose the ability to pump blood. This is a very quick and unpredictable experience.

Death can also happen several hours after inhalation from respiratory depression.

This means the user's breathing slows down to a dangerous level and can reduce oxygen supply.

Vomiting while the user is intoxicated or sedated can lead to choking.

Hypoxia, which is the reduction of oxygen in the blood, can happen when users restrict the amount of fresh air they can take in.

Cooling agents found in some inhalants such as from aerosol cans can freeze the throat and cause suffocation.

For more information go to drugs and the law.

What to do if someone is at risk

If you are concerned someone may be at risk of severe harm from volatile substance use, you should encourage them to seek:

  • medical advice
  • treatment voluntarily.

If the person doesn’t want treatment

The person may not be willing to enter into voluntary treatment.

If this happens, you may be able to apply to get them assessed.

For more information go to the Department of Health website.

Apply to have a place declared a VSA management area

Residents and communities can apply to have a place declared a VSA management area and get a management plan approved.

This helps to control the possession, sale and supply, use and storage of volatile substances within that area.

For more information, go to the Department of Health website.

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Last updated: 03 June 2020

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