SOLVENT ABUSE -
info for kids and parents - be aware, show you care...
Solvent misuse is also sometimes called glue sniffing, inhalant misuse
or volatile substance abuse (‘VSA’). Users sometimes refer to it as
‘huffing’. In the average home there are over 30 products that could
be abused by sniffing.
Most of these are in everyday use and are not locked away. Most
parents would not link them with abuse.
getting ‘high’ by breathing in concentrated solvent fumes. The
products involved include:
butane gas (lighter fuel, camping gas cylinders, propellant in
aerosol sprays (virtually any aerosol may be used: hairspray and
pain-relieving sprays are common)
solvent-based glues with a strong odour (e.g. Evo-Stik)
typewriter correcting fluids (e.g. Tipp-Ex)
the content of
some types of fire extinguisher
spray paints, varnishes etc
Solvent misuse is not illegal in the UK, but it is against the law for
shopkeepers to sell solvent-based products in the expectation that
they will be abused.
Solvent misuse predominantly involves children of school age. About
one in ten secondary school children try
sniffing at least once,
but most of these will only experiment – they will not sniff for very
long. Less than 1% become heavy and frequent solvent abusers. The
number of young people who sniff varies from place to place and from
year to year. Solvent abuse may follow 'crazes' in a particular area
many children try solvents before the age of 11, and it seems that the
peak age for experimenting is around 13 or 14 years. Boys are more
likely to sniff solvents than girls, and it is more common in inner
communal nature of solvent abuse can bring children into close contact
with other children who have moved on to experimenting with more
dangerous substances such as alcohol, tobacco or illegal drugs.
However, on balance, the communal experience is probably safer than
sniffing alone. When
alone, children may go to places where they are certain not to be
interrupted by adults. This can take them into hazardous environments,
or prevent them from being found quickly if they experience serious
adverse effects from
Just as there is a range of substances involved, so the methods of
misuse are equally varied. Gaseous preparations such as butane and
aerosols may be sniffed
from bags, but are sometimes sprayed directly into the mouth. Some
children may put their heads inside a large plastic bag to inhale the
fumes. Glue is generally sniffed from bags, often freezer or crisp
bags. Liquids can be sniffed from a handkerchief or a coat-sleeve.
Users take a series of rapid deep inhalations of solvent fumes in
order to boost the amount of solvent which enters the lungs. Where
possible they breathe in through both the mouth and the nose.
only are solvents widely available, but they are also portable, so
children can sniff while walking around. It means that children do not
always have to find a secluded spot. They can sniff in school or
anywhere around the home. They may even abuse solvents while in bed,
using the bedcovers as a tent to contain the fumes.
solvents are felt very rapidly, because the chemicals are absorbed
from the lungs directly into the bloodstream. To an observer
the effects of
may appear to be similar to drunkenness. To the user, the two
are very different. They look similar because of the general
intoxication, confusion and lack of coordination, but from the user’s
perspective, solvents cause hallucinations, euphoria and perceptual
distortions (which alcohol does not). Alcohol also has much longer
lasting effects whereas solvents only act for a few minutes: users
must repeat the process in order to stay intoxicated.
Users report that the initial deep inhalations produce a "rush" or
euphoria. This is followed by a period of loosened inhibitions and
increased sociability which may be accompanied by hallucinations.
These effects are short-lived and so inhalation must be repeated at
regular intervals to sustain them.
Some users become very frightened or agitated as a result of their
experiences. Physical side effects can include vomiting,
disorientation and dizziness. Children with asthma can make their
condition worse by inhaling solvents. However, many non-asthmatic
users experience upper respiratory side effects, which include runny
nose, sore throat, cough, watery eyes, etc. These appear similar to
the symptoms of a cold. "Hangovers" can arise after intensive use and
often consist of headaches, drowsiness and confusion. Persistent use
can cause a redness or rash around the mouth and nose due to the
irritant nature of many solvents. Solvent misuse can also cause
disruption to sleep and an inability to concentrate.
Unfortunately, solvent misuse can also cause death. This can occur at
any time, including, tragically amongst those who use solvents only
once as an experiment. In 1998, 70 children died from solvent misuse.
This is less than the peak of 152 deaths reported in 1990, but is
still an unacceptably large number.
Solvent misuse causes death in a number of ways:
If butane gas or
are sprayed directly into the mouth, this may actually freeze and
damage the throat tissues, causing swelling and perhaps
suffocation. Spraying directly into the mouth may also slow the
heart so much that it stops beating.
Since many of these products are flammable, there is a fire risk,
especially when users combine
sniffing and smoking.
Intoxication may cause reckless behaviour and may make users less
able to deal with danger. Because solvent abusers often sniff in
remote or inaccessible places (such as on railway embankments,
near canals and in derelict buildings) their intoxication may mean
they face increased risks from the hazards in these dangerous
The use of large plastics bags
to inhale solvents carries the risk of suffocation.
If solvent abusers become unconscious they may choke on their own
vomit. This is a potential cause of death or brain damage in young
people who have become intoxicated by any method.
Solvent intoxication is likely to compound the effects of street drugs
or alcohol, which may add to the dangers.
Some solvents contain well-known toxins such as lead (in petrol) or
benzene (which causes cancer). However, direct harm due to the
individual solvents is comparatively rare, although it does occur.
Many sniffable products are a mixture of chemicals and the
manufacturer may change a formulation several times. Consequently it
can be difficult to assess the dangers of particular products.
Generally, the solvents themselves only rarely cause long-term damage
to the body. Damage to the liver, kidneys, lungs, bone marrow or
nervous system is known, but it is not common and is generally
Parents can feel a sense of failure if they find out that their
children have been abusing solvents, but most will not even have been
aware that it has occurred. If solvent misuse is discovered by
parents, they should attempt to be understanding and supportive, and
to offer a patient, clear explanation of some of the dangers, avoiding
condemnation or hysteria. This approach is likely to be more
productive than ignoring the problem or panicking. Helping children
with any problems that might have led them to solvent abuse may also
encourage them to stop
Practical advice can also be life-saving: it is self-evident to adults
how dangerous it is to put your head in a plastic bag, but this may
need to be spelled out to a child or
can be difficult to tell if a child has been abusing solvents. Some of
the signs and symptoms of solvent misuse are similar to normal changes
that occur in young adolescents. Things to look out for include:
Finding quantities of empty butane, aerosol or glue cans or
plastic bags in a place where you know your child has been.
Chemical smells on clothes or breath.
"Drunken" behaviour for no apparent reason and "hangovers"
Persistent cough and cold symptoms.
Sudden changes in behaviour or lifestyle, for example, going
around with a new set of friends to the exclusion of established
relationships, or truancy.
Wide swings in mood or behaviour.
Spots and redness around the nose and mouth. This is not always a
reliable guide. So-called "glue sniffer’s rash" is not common and
is easily confused with acne.
Loss of appetite. Again, there are many reasons why this might
occur. Weight loss should always be checked, no matter what the
suspected cause is.
Asking for money without explaining what it is for.
Children can become ingenious in their ways of disguising abuse, e.g.
having model aircraft in various stages of construction lying about
their room to explain the heavy fumes present in the air.
users and parents
main UK support group is Re-Solv. It is the only UK charity dedicated
to solvent misuse (Tel: 0808 800 2345). It produces factsheets and
provides support to users and their families. Various other children’s
and substance misuse groups offer support and factsheets.
a member of the public finds an unconscious or drowsy person who may
have abused solvents, it is important to stay calm. The following
steps are recommended:
Discourage exertion and keep the person calm because of the small
risk of "sudden
Remove any solvents and make sure that there is plenty of fresh
Make sure they are lying on their side so that if they vomit, they
will not inhale it and choke themselves.
Call an ambulance if the user is unconscious.
Realise that this is not the best time to discuss their drug or
Try to stop them
- without using force.
Stay with them until the effects have worn off.