Volatile solvents are found in many common household products, such as adhesives, paint, and cleaning fluid. Thus, children and adolescents can easily obtain them. In the United States, about 10% of adolescents have inhaled solvents (see also Substance Use and Abuse in Adolescents Substance Use and Abuse in Adolescents Substance use among adolescents ranges from experimentation to severe substance use disorders. All substance use, even experimental use, puts adolescents at risk of short-term problems, such... read more ).
The product may be sprayed into a plastic bag and inhaled (bagging, sniffing, or snorting), or a cloth soaked with the product may be placed next to the nose or in the mouth (huffing).
(See also Drug Use and Abuse Overview of Substance-Related Disorders Drugs are an integral part of everyday life for many people, whether the drugs are used for legitimate medical purposes or recreationally (see table Drugs with Medical and Recreational Uses)... read more .)
Inhaling the gas from volatile solvents causes immediate and sometimes long-term symptoms.
Users rapidly become intoxicated. They may become dizzy, drowsy, and confused. Speech may be slurred. They may have difficulty standing and walking, resulting in an unsteady gait. Users may also become excited, impulsive, and irritable.
Later, perceptions and sense of reality may be distorted, resulting in illusions, hallucinations, and delusions. Users experience a euphoric, dreamy high, culminating in a short period of sleep. They may become delirious and confused, with mood swings. Thinking and coordination may be impaired. Intoxication can last anywhere from a few minutes to more than an hour.
Some volatile solvents are metabolized into toxic substances. For example, methylene chloride (dichloromethane, an ingredient in some paint removers) is converted to carbon monoxide in the body, and inhalation can result in carbon monoxide poisoning Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Carbon monoxide poisoning is common. Symptoms may include headache, nausea, drowsiness, and confusion. The diagnosis is based on blood tests. Carbon monoxide detectors, adequate venting of furnaces... read more . Methanol (wood alcohol) inhalation leads to toxic by-products that cause acidification of the blood and eye problems.
Death can occur suddenly, even the first time one of these products is directly inhaled, because breathing becomes very slow and shallow or because heart rhythm is disturbed (called arrhythmia Overview of Abnormal Heart Rhythms Abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias) are sequences of heartbeats that are irregular, too fast, too slow, or conducted via an abnormal electrical pathway through the heart. Heart disorders are... read more ).
Chronic use or exposure to solvents (including exposure in the workplace) can severely damage the brain, peripheral nerves, heart, kidneys, liver, and lungs. In addition, bone marrow may be damaged, impairing red blood cell production and causing anemia Overview of Anemia Anemia is a condition in which the number of red blood cells is low. Red blood cells contain hemoglobin, a protein that enables them to carry oxygen from the lungs and deliver it to all parts... read more , or leukemia Overview of Leukemia Leukemias are cancers of white blood cells or of cells that develop into white blood cells. White blood cells develop from stem cells in the bone marrow. Sometimes the development goes awry... read more might occur. The skin around the mouth and nose can get irritated (huffer's eczema). Use in pregnancy can result in premature birth Premature Newborn A premature newborn is a baby delivered before 37 weeks of gestation. Depending on when they are born, premature newborns have underdeveloped organs, which may not be ready to function outside... read more and fetal solvent syndrome, which causes symptoms similar to those of fetal alcohol syndrome Alcohol during pregnancy More than 50% of pregnant women take prescription or nonprescription (over-the-counter) drugs or use social drugs (such as tobacco and alcohol) or illicit drugs at some time during pregnancy... read more .
With chronic use, people become somewhat tolerant to the solvent’s effects. People may become psychologically dependent on solvents, with a strong urge to continue using the solvents. But physical dependence does not occur. That is, stopping the drug does not cause unpleasant symptoms (withdrawal).
A doctor's evaluation
History of exposure to solvents
Doctors usually base the diagnosis on what people or their friends tell the doctor. Routine drug screens cannot detect volatile solvents, although, if necessary, specialized tests may detect these substances.
Treating any organ damage
Treating children and adolescents who use inhalants involves evaluating for and treating any organ damage.
Recovery rates from inhalant use are among the poorest for any mood-altering substance. Treatment of solvent-dependent teenagers is difficult, and relapse is common. However, most users stop by the end of adolescence. Education and counseling to improve mental health and social skills and to manage sociologic problems may help.