Solvent abuse (or ‘volatile substance abuse’) is the deliberate inhalation of volatile chemicals for the purpose of getting intoxicated or ‘high’. The fumes and gases inhaled are found in everyday products such as cigarette lighter refills and aerosols.
This page will answer the most common questions around solvent abuse. We also have a leaflet available which you can view here. Just get in touch if you’d like printed copies.
Why do people abuse solvents?
The products associated with solvent abuse are legal, accessible and inexpensive. So they offer the possibility of a fast-acting ‘high’ which usually passes off quickly without a hangover. This can also make solvent abuse difficult to detect.
Many young people who experiment with volatile substances do so out of curiosity. Others may be copying older peers or trying to be part of a group. Some might want to shock parents or carers.
Solvent abuse might also be a response to problems in other areas of a person’s life. Stress, anxiety, bereavement, loneliness etc.
Some people might use volatile substances alongside other drugs or as a substitute if a preferred drug is unobtainable.
Does solvent abuse lead to dependency or addiction?
Some ‘chronic’ users of volatile substances report that they develop a tolerance to the substances. They need more to keep achieving the same effects. This is worrying because it may lead to dependence (a feeling that you cannot do without the substance) and even psychological addiction. A young person experimenting with these substances is not likely to develop such problems in the short term.
Can you die from solvent abuse?
Yes. Inhaling volatile substances can trigger a form of fatal heart attack called ‘Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome’. Please visit our page on Symptoms and risks of solvent abuse for more information.
How do you recognise the products?
The most commonly misused products are butane gas cigarette lighter refills, aerosols (commonly deodorants) and petrol. Many UK aerosols carry the Solvent Abuse Can Kill Instantly (SACKI) warning pictured here.
Consumer products containing volatile substances are safe when they’re used for their intended purpose and when the manufacturer’s instructions are followed.
How can young people be stopped from abusing these products?
There are laws restricting the sale of some products to young people. Visit our page on Solvent Abuse and the Law to find out more. However, products such as aerosols are practical and useful. We can’t completely control young people’s access to them.
Education is the best approach. Evidence suggests that talking with children and young people about risk-taking behaviours such as drug use can protect them from harm. We have a Parent Guide with more information on talking with your children about drugs.
What should I do if someone I know is abusing solvents?
There are often complex reasons for solvent abuse. These may change over time. Often the best type of help to begin with is to listen, avoid being judgemental. Offer understanding and support. It’s important to seek professional help. Speak to your GP, contact Re-Solv or visit Talk to Frank, the national drugs awareness service, to find your local support service.
Mentor are the UK’s leading voice in preventing drug and alcohol misuse among young people. They suggest: “If things just don’t feel right and you are worried, talk with them. Trust your instincts and the fact that you are likely to know them better than anyone. Mood swings, anger and periods when they are withdrawn can be signs that young people are struggling, but they are not automatically proof that young people are using drugs or alcohol.”
Published: October 2013
Reviewed: September 2020
Review Date: September 2021