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Solvent/Inhalant Problems

What are Solvents and Inhalants?


Solvents are substances produced from organic chemicals. They have a large number of household, commercial and industrial uses as, for example, fuels, cleaning fluids, toiletries, glues, fillers, paint and thinners.

A common characteristic of all these substances is their volatile nature - that is, they evaporate rapidly when exposed to air and give off chemical fumes. Some solvents are gaseous by nature, some fume at room temperature and some vapourise if heated.
People use solvents to get high or out of it. Because solvents are sniffed or inhaled they are also called inhalants. People have inhaled substances over thousands of years, so this is not a new behaviour.
Since the 1950s the number of products that contain volatile solvents has increased dramatically. Households contain a large number of solvents, including such things as petrol, glues, spray paint, thinners, propellant gases used in aerosols, hair spray, air fresheners, cigarette lighter fuels, nail polish remover, correction fluid and thinners, marker pens and aftershave.

How solvents and inhalants work:
When inhaled, solvents enter the bloodstream directly from the lungs. The chemicals in solvents are fat soluble and rapidly reach the brain and other body organs, so the effects are felt very quickly.
Solvents have a central nervous system depressant effect - that is, they slow down the brain functions. Even in small doses, solvents produce temporary distortions to how people sense and see things.

Some solvents are broken down and excreted through the kidneys, while many are breathed out through the lungs. Because of this, the solvent smell may remain on the person's breath for several hours after they have inhaled.

Solvent and inhalant users:
Children and teenagers are the usual users of solvents. It is not illegal to use solvents in New Zealand.
In 1990 a large survey of drug use in New Zealand found that only 0.9 percent of those surveyed had ever tried solvents. Two percent of those aged 15 to 17 reported having tried solvents, with no use in the past 12 months for women over 17 and men over 19 years of age. This survey did not include young people under 15 years of age, but did confirm that solvent use is usually confined to children and teenagers.
This study and other research and anecdotal evidence indicates that very few people try solvents and, of those who do, only a very small percentage develop serious problems from using them.
How solvents and inhalants are used:
Usually solvents are inhaled directly from their container or a bag of some kind. Alternatively a rag or handkerchief soaked in solvents is held over the nose or mouth. It is not uncommon for people using solvents to increase the effects by concentrating the fumes in an enclosed space - a cupboard, room, or area under the house. A really dangerous method of using solvents is to cover the head and shoulders with a plastic bag. If the solvent is heated a more concentrated vapour can be produced.

Aerosols can be sprayed directly into the mouth and are highly dangerous when used like this.

Types of solvent and inhalant use:
Experimental use
Experimental use is usually by children or young people who try solvents because others are doing it. They are curious and solvents are available and cheap. Sniffing doesn't go beyond a few episodes and they are usually not harmed by experimentation. There can be exceptions to this, as some solvents can be dangerous the first time they are used.
The biggest risk facing experimental users of solvents is their inexperience and lack of good information about both the products they are sniffing and the least harmful ways of sniffing.
Only a very small proportion of those who try sniffing continue. Most young people stop after a short period of time. If you find children or friends sniffing, it is highly likely this is experimental use, so it is important to keep a perspective on the behaviour and wait for the young person to recover before discussing the situation.
Social use
Social use includes young people who, after experimentation, continue to use solvents occasionally in a recreational or social way with friends.

People who sniff socially tend to know more about solvents than experimental users so are less likely to be damaged by their use. Social use tends to stop by mid adolescence when other drugs such as alcohol and tobacco may be used.

Problematic use
Solvent use can be considered problematic when people start to see their solvent use as more important than other activities or if problems from solvent use arise. Indicators of problematic use include hassles with friends or family, health effects, financial pressure and beginning to use solvents as a way to manage difficult feelings, stresses or situations.
Chronic use
Only a very small number of those who ever use solvents will become chronic users. With chronic use, more regular and increasing amounts need to be taken to get the same effect. They may use alone or with others.

Those who use chronically often have difficulties at home, such as instability, disruption, family poverty and/or drinking problems, behaviour problems, low achievement at school, depression and anxiety. They often use solvents as a way of managing their problems. Chronic solvent use can be viewed as a symptom of underlying problems.

The decision about what is chronic use depends on the amount and type of solvents used, how often, the reasons why they are used and the degree of damage to the person that can be seen.

Effects of solvent and inhalant misuse:

The effects of solvent misuse vary from person to person and situation to situation, so it is hard to predict what one individual's reaction will be.

Any drug effect depends on a combination of the drugs taken; the way they are taken; the strength of the drug; how experienced the person using them is; their general and mental health; the person's mood when they take the drug; their individual responses and the setting in which use occurs.

Short-term effects:
The person using solvents will often experience an initial feeling of wellbeing and relaxation. They may feel excited, exhilarated, dizzy, be disinhibited (behaving in ways that are not usual for them), have blurred vision, experience flashes of light, ringing in the ears or become agitated.
Acute intoxication with solvents is similar to being drunk on alcohol, but comes on more quickly and lasts a much shorter time. The physical effects of solvent use may last up to 45 minutes, however the high usually lasts only seconds or minutes. Experienced users may prolong the effects by concentrating the drug inside a plastic bag.
If more solvents are used people can become much dizzier, restless, confused and lose control of their body and feelings. This loss of control can be dangerous as people can injure themselves. At times solvents encourage aggressive or dangerous behaviour.
Other likely effects of continued use of solvents are sleepiness, vomiting, chest pains, nose bleeds, bad headaches, breathing problems (especially if the person has asthma), muscle weakness, hallucinations and unconsciousness.
Most solvent users recover quickly from these effects which usually disappear within a few minutes to half an hour if sniffing is stopped. The after effects of solvent misuse may be a hangover-like feeling for up to 24 hours, including headaches, tiredness, looking pale, poor concentration and nausea.

The harm most often associated with volatile substances is how and where they are used. Accidents or death can be the result of people sniffing in stressful or unsafe places, such as on a busy road, near a railway line or on a roof. Sudden death due to cardiac arrest has been known to occur on rare occasions, particularly if the person using solvents engages in sudden strenuous activity or gets a significant shock. It is also likely to occur with certain solvents that have additives to increase their effectiveness as a solvent.

Long-term effects:
With continued use, tolerance to the effects of solvents develops, that is, the body adapts to the solvent use and people need more and more to get the desired effect.
Psychological dependence develops in a small number of people, as they come to rely on solvents more to manage their life. This sort of dependency means that solvents can become central to a person's thoughts and actions. They may spend large amounts of time thinking about solvents, about how they are going to get them and when they are next going to use them.
Physical dependence (where the person develops withdrawal symptoms such as sweating, shaking or confusion) on solvents is rare, but can occur.
As well as the effects described in the section above, constant use of solvents can cause nose bleeds, bloodshot eyes, bad breath and thirst. Continued use can cause weight loss, trembling and depression. These effects are likely to clear up once sniffing stops.
Regular use over a long period of time can be serious because the side effects can become more permanent. Memory loss, brain damage and personality changes can occur, as well as nerve damage, weakness and fatigue.
Heavy solvent use over a long period of time (five or more years) has resulted in a number of reports of brain and nervous system damage. Long term use of aerosols and cleaning fluids has been known to cause lasting kidney and liver damage and to cause hallucinations. Repeated sniffing of leaded petrol can cause lead poisoning which can cause various types of cancers.
Some solvent products, particularly aerosol gases and cleaning fluids, can make the heart sensitive and cause heart failure, especially if people physically exert themselves when using. Because many inhalants contain more than one volatile solvent it can be difficult to identify the specific chemicals that do damage. On rare occasions people do die from sniffing solvents, sometimes from cardiac arrest.

The only products that are known to cause death in even first-time users are aerosols and fire extinguishers - the fluorocarbons in these products can cause heart or respiratory failure.

Other possible effects of solvents:
Because of the large variety of solvents there can be a wide range of problems blamed on solvent use.
There is no evidence that sniffing will progress to the use of other drugs. However, solvent use does indicate the young person is willing to try substances.
There is mixed evidence that the chronic or long-term use of solvents causes withdrawal symptoms when stopped.
The permanent effects resulting from specific solvents are somewhat unknown. There are some indications that solvents can damage the liver, kidneys, eyes, heart and bone marrow. However the true prevalence and nature of brain damage, even among chronic users, is not fully clear, especially when other drug use and injuries are put into the equation.
Little is known about the effects of solvents on pregnancy and the growth of the developing baby. One study found that babies whose mothers used toluene (found in some paints and glues) when pregnant had developmental delays, behaviour problems and some head and limb abnormalities.

There has been little research on the mental health effects of solvent use. However it is likely that solvent use will worsen existing mental health problems and may produce problems where none have previously been evident.

Signs of solvent and inhalant abuse:

Some of the possible signs of solvent use include:
  • Rashes around the nose and mouth.
  • Eye redness or swelling.
  • Irritation of the chest and throat with coughing or gagging.
  • Nausea.
  • Vomiting and weight loss.
  • Headaches.
  • Skipping school and disappearance from home.
  • Hangover-type symptoms, e.g. slurred speech or uncoordinated behaviours.
  • A change in sleeping patterns.
  • Staying up late and not wanting to get out of bed moody.
  • Irritable or withdrawn behaviour.
Some of these signs like staying up late, withdrawing from the family or whanau, and acting up - are part of being an adolescent. It is important not to over-interpret these things as a definite sign of drug taking.
More direct evidence that children or adolescents are sniffing might include:
  • The disappearance of aerosols, glues, perfumes and petrol from around the home.
  • Empty solvent containers or plastic bags.
  • The remains of solvents on bedclothes or the lingering smell of solvents.
  • Definite smell of solvents detectable on the breath glue stains on clothes.

Parents and family or whanau members will react differently when they find out that their child has been sniffing. If possible, it is worth considering the best way to react and not instantly punish the child. Most young people will become defensive about their sniffing and setting up conflict and confrontation is not useful.

Many young people change their drug use when they come to better understand the possible harm to themselves or others. Most sniffers are young and don't know a lot about the effects of sniffing, so providing information about solvents is useful.

Young people discovered sniffing also need to know that they have the security around them to make changes. Talk to your child about what is going on, your concerns, assure them of your love and that you want to help.

This information is available courtesy of The Mental Health Foundation.

For more extensive information and advice about steps you can take, download this PDF.

Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand
PO Box 10051
Dominion Road
81 New North Road
Eden Terrace
Ph 0064 9 300 7010
Fax 0064 9 300 7020

More very useful information on Solvent abuse


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