Many people mistakenly assume that solvent abuse is safe because it involves the use of legal, everyday products. In fact, when they are deliberately inhaled, volatile substances can kill suddenly and unpredictably, and there is no way to avoid this risk.
This page will give you information on signs and symptoms of solvent abuse and the risks to health, including loss of life.
Recognising solvent abuse: signs and symptoms
The immediate symptoms of solvent abuse can appear a lot like alcohol use. They might include:
- Slurred speech
- Dilated pupils
- Euphoria and excitement
- Difficulty with coordination
- Feeling drowsy, dizzy or light-headed
- Feeling nauseated and not interested in eating
- ‘Drunken’, withdrawn, irritable or inattentive behaviour
- Hallucinations and/or delusions
Other physical signs suggestive of use might include a chemical smell, runny nose, watery eyes, irritation of the throat and rashes or spots around the nose and mouth.
Circumstantial evidence of use might include empty gas or aerosol containers (perhaps with teeth marks on the nozzle), or aerosols disappearing from around the home or workplace.
However, none of these signs are definitive – they may be caused by other behaviours or illnesses. The best way to find out if someone is to talk with them and listen to what they have to say.
Health risks associated with solvent abuse
Long-term use of petrol and some organic solvents such as toluene can cause brain, lung, liver and kidney damage. This is why toluene has been banned from UK consumer products such as household glues – although it may still be found in industrial or trade glues.
New research suggests that, in some cases, inhaling poppers can cause a form of permanent eye damage called ‘Poppers Maculopathy’.
There is no published evidence that butane causes long-term damage. Some regular and chronic users report suffering from slurred speech and slower reactions while they are using, but find that these symptoms do not continue once they stop. Others do feel that solvent abuse has contributed to longer-term physical or mental health issues.
The risk of death from solvent abuse
Anyone experimenting with volatile substances is at risk of sudden death. Death may occur at the first attempt or following many attempts – it can happen at any time.
The causes of death include:
- Choking on vomit.
- Suffocation or asphyxiation – when someone is unable to breathe in sufficient oxygen. This can occur if someone chokes, or if they have a bag or mask over their nose and mouth.
- Burns injuries, as volatile substances are highly flammable
- Fatal accidents, such as being hit by a car or train as your judgement and mobility is impaired
- A heart condition called ‘cardiac arrhythmia’ – also known as ‘Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome’ (SSDS). Most deaths from solvent abuse are caused by SSDS. Inhaling the volatile substances causes the heart to beat irregularly. The heart can then fail if the person experiences a sudden rush of adrenaline – e.g. if they are excited, frightened or if they engage in physical activity. Unless a defibrillator is available, death can result within minutes.
Poppers can be fatal if the liquid is swallowed.
For advice on what to do in an emergency situation please see our Solvent Abuse Help page.
Published: June 2019
Reviewed: September 2020
Review date: September 2021