Solvents and chemicals

The chemicals in some common household products can produce effects similar to alcohol or anaesthetics when inhaled. We look at what’s going on...

Sometimes people deliberately inhale volatile chemicals in order to get intoxicated or ‘high’. These chemicals are known as solvents and they have a large number of household, commercial and industrial uses such as fuels, cleaning fluids, toiletries, glues, fillers, paint and thinners. Because solvents are sniffed or inhaled they are also called inhalants.

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How do 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.

What are the effects of solvents and inhalants?

The effects can vary from person to person and depend on what specific substance has been inhaled, but some general effects can include:

  • Slurred speech
  • Dilated pupils
  • Euphoria and excitement
  • Difficulty with coordination
  • Drowsiness, dizziness, or lightheadedness
  • Nausea, vomiting
  • Hallucinations and/or delusions
  • Unconsciousness

Other physical effects can include a chemical smell, runny nose, watery eyes, irritation of the throat and rashes or spots around the nose and mouth.

The duration of the effects can depend on how much has been taken, a person’s size, whether they’ve eaten, and any other substances that may be in a person’s system. Some people report a high re-dosing compulsion in order to keep feeling the effects.

What are the risks of solvents and inhalants?

Because solvents are available as household products, many people think they’re safe to use but they’re not. In fact, when they are deliberately inhaled, volatile substances can lead to sudden and unpredictable death, and there is no way to avoid this risk

According to the UK drug harm reduction service, Talk to Frank, between the years 2000 and 2008 solvents led to the death of more 10- to 15-year-olds than illegal drugs combined.

Anyone experimenting with volatile substances is at risk of sudden death. Death may occur at the first attempt or following many attempts – it can happen at any time.

The causes of death include:

  • Choking on vomit
  • Suffocation or asphyxiation – when someone is unable to breathe in sufficient oxygen. This can occur if someone chokes, or if they have a bag or mask over their nose and mouth.
  • Burn injuries, as volatile substances are highly flammable
  • Fatal accidents, such as being hit by a car or train as your judgement and mobility is impaired
  • A heart condition called ‘cardiac arrhythmia’ – also known as ‘Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome’ (SSDS). Most deaths from solvent abuse are caused by SSDS. Inhaling the volatile substances causes the heart to beat irregularly. The heart can then fail if the person experiences a sudden rush of adrenaline – e.g. if they are excited, frightened or if they engage in physical activity. Unless a defibrillator is available, death can result within minutes.

Other risks include mood swings and aggressive behaviour, as well as an increased risk of accidents as result of a lack of coordination, disorientation and confusion.

Long-term risks can include damage to the muscles, liver and kidneys; and lasting impairment of brain function, especially affecting coordination and how the brain controls body movement.

If you think someone is suffering from a medical emergency, call 111 immediately and ask for an ambulance. Always tell emergency responders what someone has taken – you won’t get in trouble and it could save a life.

If you’re worried about your own drinking or drug taking, you can reach out to the Alcohol Drug Helpline on 0800 787 797, or text 8681. You'll be able to speak with a trained counsellor who can provide you with helpful information, insight and support. They’re available 24/7, all calls are free and confidential. You can also chat to them online through the website.