Drug A - Z


Inhalants are a range of volatile substances (many of which are familiar household items) which, when vaporised and inhaled, may cause the user to feel intoxicated or ‘high’. Inhalants are ‘depressants’, which doesn’t necessarily mean that they make you feel depressed, rather they slow down the activity of the brain and central nervous system.

Messages are slowed down going to and from the brain to the body, including physical, mental and emotional responses.

Small amounts of inhalants can affect you quite quickly, due to their rapid entry into the bloodstream through the lungs.

Immediate effects

Following are some of the immediate and short-term effects that can be experienced when using inhalants:

  • Like alcohol, feeling less inhibited, laughting, becoming excited and generally feeling intoxicated are effects felt within 3 to 5 minutes of using inhalants. A sustained ‘high’ can be achieved by repeated use.
  • Your mood can vary from mild excitement to euphoria. Sometimes you may become agitated and uneasy.
  • The initial excitement is often followed by drowsiness.
  • Inhalants may cause sneezing, coughing, glazed eyes or a runny nose, like having a cold or the flu.
  • Inhalants can make people feel sick and have diarrhoea.
  • After using inhalants people often have the smell of the product on their breath.
  • Nosebleeds, bloodshot eyes, and sores around the mouth and nose.
  • People may do reckless or dangerous things after using inhalants, which may cause serious accidents.

These effects are usually over within an hour of inhaling.  Hangovers and headaches may occur after the immediate effects have passed.  Sometimes these last for several days although they are usually less common and less severe than hangovers caused by alcohol.

In greater quantities

If large amounts of inhalants are inhaled, disorientation and lack of co-ordination can occur.  Other possible side effects include visual distortions and even losing consciousness and death.

Short-term use

With short-term use, most products rarely cause damage to the body.  However, some glue sniffers have been admitted to hospital, unable to control their movements or speak properly, and sometimes have convulsions.  Most of these symptoms clear within a few hours.  Some people may experience problems with their breathing passages, but even this improves over time.

Long-term effects

Almost all young people who try inhalants only use them once or twice.  They do not go on to become regular users.  However, some people do use inhalants heavily and frequently, and may experience the following effects:

  • Health problems: Long-term users may appear pale, have tremors, lose weight, feel tired and be unusually thirsty. They may also have anaemia, because some inhalants affect the production of blood.
  • The lead in petrol, and some of the chemicals in other inhalants, may build up in the body. This irritates the lining of the stomach and intestines and can cause damage to the brain, nervous system, kidneys and liver. Prolonged and heavy use may even cause stupor or coma, problems with breathing, irregular heartbeat and sometimes seizures.
  • Impaired thinking: They may also be forgetful and less able to think clearly or logically.
  • Irritability: They may be irritable, hostile, depressed or feel persecuted.
  • Permanent brain damage is rare, but can occur if people use inhalants heavily for a long period of time.

As well as the other health risks associated with inhaling, chroming, in particular, can cause eye problems.  Blood vessels can burst in the eyes, making them completely red, eventually leading to blindness.

Most long-term effects are not permanent and are reversed if use is stopped.  However, cleaning products, correction fluid and aerosol sprays can cause permanent damage.

Withdrawal symptoms due to abrupt cessation of inhalant use are usually mild but in some cases severe symptoms can occur. The symptoms following abrupt termination of use can be anxiety, depression, loss of appetite, irritation, aggressive behaviour, dizziness, tremors and nausea.


A small number of people have died from using inhalants. The main danger comes from accidents when ‘high’, such as suffocation caused using plastic bags to inhale, choking on vomit when unconscious, and behaving recklessly.

‘Sudden sniffing death’ has followed the use of aerosol sprays, cleaning and correction fluids, and model aeroplane cement. It is believed that chemicals in these products can cause heart failure, particularly if the user is stressed or does heavy exercise after inhaling. This is very rare.


Tolerance does develop with regular use of inhalants.


Dependence on inhalants can be psychological or physical, or both. However, dependence among users is rare considering the total number who have tried inhalants.

With regular use of inhalants psychological dependence can occur. People psychologically dependent on inhalants find that using them becomes far more important than other activities in their life. They crave using and will find it very difficult to stop.

Chronic abuse of inhalants may result in physical dependence. This means the body gets used to functioning with the inhalant present. Abruptly stopping use can cause withdrawal symptoms.

The fumes from organic solvents may simply be inhaled from their containers. A liquid solvent may also be poured or sprayed on an absorbent material to increase the release of fumes. Users often try to concentrate the fumes by putting the solvent in a paper or plastic bag or a rubber balloon, and then holding the open end over the mouth and nose.

Capsules containing amyl nitrite are crushed and held beneath the nose. Butyl nitrite may be inhaled in its container, or, like organic solvents, applied to absorbent cloth or paper.

Nitrous oxide may be inhaled through a mask from a tank of the compressed gas or directly from a punctured whippet. The nozzle of a whipped-cream container can also be depressed in such a way that only the NOS is discharged.

Like all drugs, inhalants may have the potential to cause harm to the unborn child and also harm to the baby whilst breastfeeding. Due to this, it is recommended to not use any level of inhalants during pregnancy and whilst breastfeeding.

Most inhalants are common household products, so it is not practical to make them illegal and it would not help protect young people from harm. However, it is illegal for shopkeepers to sell products to someone if they believe that they are to be used for inhaling.

It is illegal to drive a motor vehicle while under the influence of any drug, including inhalants. Breaking this law carries heavy penalties including disqualification from driving, fines and even imprisonment. It is advised that you do not drive after the consumption of any mood altering substance. You could put your own and other people’s lives at serious risk.