Volatile Substances

Street use: Vapours from volatile substances are usually inhaled directly from their containers or from polythene bags.

Drug effect: Vapours from volatile substances pass rapidly from the lungs to the brain causing depression of the central nervous system. Effects similar to acute alcoholic intoxication occur within two to three minutes. Feelings of euphoria are very common and some users report hallucinations. If inhalation continues there is further depression of the central nervous system, which leads to loss of awareness, judgement and muscular co-ordination and eventual coma. The intoxicating effects last for 15 to 60 minutes after sniffing ceases. Sniffers often report a mild 'hangover' for up to a day after use.

Dependency: Tolerance develops so that, over time, larger and larger quantities of volatile substances are required to produce the same effect.

Withdrawal: Occasional mild physical withdrawal symptoms, such as headaches, have been noted. However, psychological rather than physical dependency is more common.

Long-term use: 'Sniffers rash', memory impairment and loss of concentration have been reported. With chronic use, loss of muscular co-ordination, slurring of speech and vision impairment are common. However, these effects are usually reversible if sniffing stops. Long – term heavy use may lead to permanent brain damage.

Overdose risk: Every year there are over 100 deaths in the UK linked to sniffing. Over half are linked directly to the toxic effects of substances inhaled. The remainder are caused by a combination of accidents, inhalation of vomit and suffocation caused by a plastic bag over the head.

Pregnancy risks: Volatile substances pass the placental barrier but there is little information about their effects on the foetus.

Legal status: In England, Wales and Northern Ireland the Intoxicating Substance Supply Act 1985 makes it an offence to knowingly supply solvents for inhalation to anyone under the age of 18 years.

SPECIAL NOTE: In 1998, of all deaths in the UK linked to volatile substances, 53% resulted from inhalation of gas fuels, 11% from the inhalation of aerosols and 13% from the inhalation of solvent – based adhesives.
Volatile Substances