Solvent abuse: what substances are classed as ‘solvents’?

The term ‘solvent abuse’ covers a range of gases or chemicals that evaporate at room temperature to form a vapour which can be inhaled.  They are found in a whole range of legal, household products. In the UK, these commonly include:

  • Nitrous oxide, also known as ‘laughing gas’ It is usually dispensed from small metal canisters (‘whippits’) and inhaled from balloons
  • Butane gas (sometimes propane gas) found in cigarette lighter refills and aerosols
  • Alkyl nitrites, better known as ‘poppers’
  • Petrol
  • Some industrial glues.
  • Acetone, found in nail polish remover

These everyday products are safe when they are used for their legitimate purpose and according to the manufacturers’ instructions for use.

Why does solvent abuse make you ‘high’?

These gases and chemicals are nervous system depressants. They slow down the activity of the brain and central nervous system and affect physical, mental and emotional responses. When inhaled, the gases and chemicals are absorbed through the lungs into the bloodstream. They are soluble in body fat and so pass rapidly to the brain and other organs. As a result, the effects begin quickly – perhaps within half a minute. Although the ‘high’ usually lasts only a few minutes and can include hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that aren’t present), the intoxicating effects can continue for up to 30-40 minutes. If someone continues to inhale, they will remain intoxicated.

‘Glue-sniffing’ and other terms

In the early 1980s and 1990s, the chemical most commonly associated with solvent abuse was toluene, which was found in glue. This gave rise to the term ‘glue-sniffing’. Toluene is no longer used in everyday household glues so ‘glue-sniffing’ of these products stopped.

The official term in the UK is ‘volatile substance abuse’ rather than ‘solvent abuse’ because it more accurately describes the wider range of substances involved, including gases. In the USA it is known as ‘inhalant abuse’.

Other colloquial terms for volatile substance abuse in the UK include ‘buzzing’, ‘huffing’, ‘sniffing’ and ‘tooting’.

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