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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.

Sniffing involves getting ‘high’ by breathing in concentrated solvent fumes. The products involved include:

  • butane gas (lighter fuel, camping gas cylinders, propellant in some aerosols)

  • 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)

  • dry-cleaning fluids

  • the content of some types of fire extinguisher

  • paint thinners, spray paints, varnishes etc

  • petrol

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.

Who is involved?

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 or school.

Not 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 city areas.

The 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 sniffing.

Methods of solvent misuse

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.

Not 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.

Desired effects

The effects of sniffing solvents are felt very rapidly, because the chemicals are absorbed from the lungs directly into the bloodstream. To an observer the effects of sniffing 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:

  • Solvents sensitise the heart to adrenalin, so sudden exertion or fright can trigger fatal ventricular arrhythmias. This has been called "sudden sniffing death"

  • If butane gas or aerosols 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 environments.

  • 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 reversible.

Recognising solvent sniffing

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 sniffing. 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 teenager.

It 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.

Help for users and parents

The 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.


If 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 sniffing death"

Remove any solvents and make sure that there is plenty of fresh air.

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 solvent abuse.

Try to stop them sniffing - without using force.

Stay with them until the effects have worn off.