Updated 29 April 2013

Sniffing to get high

Inhalants come in many different forms – from glue to petrol to laughing gas and poppers.


Inhalants come in many different forms – from glue to petrol to laughing gas and poppers. What are inhalants and why are they so dangerous?

Inhalants in South Africa

Glue is the most commonly abused inhalant in South Africa and glue-sniffing is prevalent amongst many young children, many of whom live on the street. The use of inhalants is common amongst children from disadvantaged backgrounds worldwide.

Many people do not see inhalants as drugs, because they are freely available in the home or workplace and they have other uses. These inhalants are breathable chemical vapors that can cause mind-altering effects.

These inhalants are usually volatile solvents. Inhalants are popular among children because they are cheap, readily available, require no special equipment to use, and they take effect quickly and wear off quickly. If you are living on the streets, you need to have your wits about you and cannot afford to be under the weather for protracted periods of time.

The different categories of inhalants:

  • Solvents – household or industrial, such as paint thinners and different types of glue.
  • Art or office supply solvents – correction fluids, felt-tip marker fluid.
  • Gases – these are used in many products including lighters or refrigeration gases.
  • Aerosol propellants – spray paints, hair or deodorant sprays.
  • Medical anaesthetic gases – ether chloroform and laughing gas.
  • Amyl nitrate – poppers

How they are used

Inhalants are breathed in through the nose or the mouth. Often a paper or plastic bag is attached to the substance being inhaled. This concentrates whatever substance is being inhaled.

Its effects

Inhalants release the brain chemical dopamine which leads to feelings of pleasure and reward.

Inhalants can lead to serious medical complications. Sniffing highly concentrated amounts of the chemicals in solvents or aerosol sprays can directly induce heart failure and death. High concentrations of inhalants also cause death from suffocation by displacing oxygen in the lungs and then in the central nervous system so that breathing ceases.

Glue, correction fluids and paint spray inhalation can lead to hearing loss. Glue, gas cylinder and petrol inhalation can result in muscle spasms. Glue and paint sprays can lead to central nervous system and brain damage and petrol inhalation can cause bone marrow damage.

Long-term effects

These can be very serious and include liver and kidney damage, blood oxygen depletion, suffocation, heart failure and sudden death.

Withdrawal symptoms

Inhalant users suffer a high rate of relapse, and require thirty to forty days or more of detoxification. Users suffer withdrawal symptoms, including hallucinations, nausea, excessive sweating, hand tremors, muscle cramps, headaches, chills and delirium tremens.

(Health24, updated March 2011)

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