Solvent Abuse Information for Parents and Caregivers

Solvent abuse


What is solvent abuse?

Solvent abuse is the intentional inhalation of volatile substances in high concentrations to cause a “high”. Many different household products or chemicals are used e.g. glue, aerosol deodorants, fly sprays, solvent based paints, etc.

In New Zealand, solvent abuse is most common in teenagers, in particular younger teens, who typically do not have easy access to alcohol. Compared to other common substances of abuse, household items used for solvent abuse are often cheap and easy to access for young teenagers.

How is it done?

There are many different methods used and many different names for these methods. Some of the common names in New Zealand include:

Huffing/chroming: involves soaking a material like a shirt or rag in a substance and holding it against the nose and mouth to inhale the fumes.

Sniffing: directly sniffing the substance from a spray can or open container.

Bagging: spraying a product into a plastic bag or a ziplock bag then inhaling the concentrated fumes.

Note: these are some of the accepted definitions, but many terms may be used interchangeably by people abusing solvents.

What are the physical effects of solvent abuse?

Short term effects: nausea, vomiting, dizziness, slurred speech, difficulty moving and coughing. Larger doses or repeated use can lead to drowsiness, coma, respiratory depression, and seizures.

Sudden heart failure: known as “sudden sniffing death/syndrome” is a fatal and unpredictable outcome of solvent abuse. All users, even first-time users, are at risk of developing sudden cardiac arrest from inhaling solvents. It is not exactly clear what causes this, but it is thought that sudden onset of physical activity after inhaling a substance or anything that quickly increases heart rate can increase the risk of sudden sniffing death.

Risk-taking behaviors and suicide: the euphoric effects of solvents may affect the behavior of users putting them at risk of harming themselves or others while impaired.

Fires and thermal burns: solvents are highly flammable; accidental ignition of the fumes, for example lighting a cigarette, has caused severe burns which have resulted in death.

Frostbite injuries: can occur when gas escapes from pierced aerosol cans. The gases are extremely cold when escaping under pressure which can result in freezing nearby tissue, resulting in severe burns on the skin and even frozen skin.

Long term effects: obvious intoxication where alcohol is not a factor personality changes, alterations in sleeping and eating behavior, persistently runny nose, or eye irritation, poor attention to hygiene.

Signs somebody you know might be abusing solvents:

Signs of solvent abuse may be difficult to distinguish from "normal" adolescent behavior. The following may be indicators that a child is abusing solvents:

  • A chemical smell on the breath or clothing
  • Empty aerosol, butane or glue containers left where the child has been
  • "Drunken" behavior such as a dazed or dizzy appearance, where consumption of alcohol is an unlikely explanation
  • A persistently runny nose or eye irritation. Sometimes rashes and pimples around the nose and mouth can be signs of abuse, but it is important to note that these only occur with the use of specific products and can be confused with acne.

What to do if somebody is found using solvents?

  • Remain calm and do not panic
  • Do not argue with or excite the person when they are under the influence
  • Excitement or stimulation can cause hallucinations or violence
  • Activity or stress may cause heart problems (which can be deadly)
  • Talk with other persons present or check the area for clues to what was used
  • If the person is awake, keep them calm and in a well-ventilated room
  • Call the National Poisons Centre or seek medical advice
  • If the person is unconscious or not breathing, ring an ambulance
  • If the patient has no pulse or is not breathing, administer CPR until help arrives

The Alcohol and Drug Helpline is available 24/7 for people who want information or support about their own or another’s alcohol or other drug use.