Volatile substances and your health

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

Examples of volatile substances include:

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

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. With sniffing, the intoxication lasts only a few minutes, so some users prolong the high 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.

Sudden sniffing death

Cardiac arrest, known as 'sudden sniffing death' is a significant risk of sniffing inhalants. Immediately after sniffing 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 dangerously slowed breathing can reduce oxygen supply. Vomiting while the user is intoxicated or sedated can lead to choking.

Hypoxia, reduction of oxygen in the blood, can happen when users are huffing (inhaling with a plastic bag or soaked cloth over their face) restricting the amount of fresh air they can take in.

Spraying directly into the mouth is a major risk, as the cooling agents in aerosol cans can freeze the throat and cause suffocation.

For more information go to drugs and the law.

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Last updated: 28 November 2017