The way a person experiences any substance depends on:
- the substance – type of substance, how much is taken, method of use
- the individual – gender, age, health, expectations, tolerance, mood
- the environment – time of day, place, with whom, cultural context.
Volatile substances are a central nervous system (CNS) depressant, which means it slows down body functions such as heart rate and breathing. It has effects similar to alcohol, with some hallucinatory effects.
The effects are felt quickly (within a few minutes) and are brief in duration unless more of the substance is inhaled. The primary effects wear off after a few minutes. In some cases where large amounts have been inhaled over a period of time, some effects may last up to an hour after the last dose (National Inhalant Abuse Taskforce, 2006).
The short term effects of volatile substance use (VSU) may include:
- reduced inhibitions
- impaired judgement
- slurred speech
- blurred vision
- bloodshot eyes
- poor coordination
- impaired attention
- impaired memory
- sneezing/runny nose
- muscle weakness/lethargy
- abdominal pain
High doses place the user at risk of:
- loss of consciousness
- CNS depression – slowed breathing and heart rate
- seizure (fit)
- cardiac arrhythmia/arrest
Regular or long-term use of volatile substances can damage the kidneys, liver, heart, lungs and the brain. Effects on the brain include cognitive impairment effecting attention, short-term memory, problem solving, hearing, vision, feeling and movement. Muscle weakness and reduced bone density have also been reported (d’Abbs & MacLean, 2008).
Neurological damage can range from mild to severe impairment with most long-term cognitive effects being reversible if the person abstains prior to significant damage occurring (d’Abbs & MacLean, 2008).
Other reported long-term effects include:
- chronic headache
- chronic or frequent cough
- chest pain or angina
- extreme tiredness or weakness
- increased nasal secretions
- red, watery eyes
- depression and/or anxiety
- shortness of breath
- stomach ulcers
- weight loss.
Tolerance, dependence and withdrawal
Tolerance can occur with regular use of volatile substances. This means that more of the substance is needed to achieve the same initial effects.
Both psychological and physical dependence can occur, particularly with chronic use.
As volatile substances are absorbed into the fatty tissue and slowly released from the body, the withdrawal symptoms are considered mild compared to other substances such as alcohol, heroin or tobacco.
Withdrawal symptoms start 24-48 hours after cessation of use and generally last between two and five days. Withdrawal symptoms may include:
- muscle cramps
- sleep disturbances/insomnia
The chemicals in volatile substances can pass through to the unborn foetus if a pregnant woman inhales. Effects include increased risk of:
- developmental delay
- birth defects
- facial abnormalities
- low birth weight
- still birth
- spontaneous abortion (miscarriage) (d’Abbs and MacLean, 2000).
For more information, see the Harms page of this website.
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Consensus-based clinical practice guideline for the management of volatile substance use in Australia
Guidelines for health professionals to identify, assess and treat people who use volatile substances in metropolitan, rural and remote communities across Australia. Part of a series of resources (NHMRC-1a, NHMRC-1b, NHMRC-1). See Chapter 1 - Introduction (pp 23-33).
Drugs and Crime Prevention Committee - Inquiry into the inhalation of volatile substances: Final report
Parliament of Victoria, Drugs and Crime Prevention Committee. See Section 4 - The effects of inhaling volatile substances (pp. 23-38).
Department of Human Services. Victoria. National Inhalant Abuse Taskforce. Considers existing initiatives, programs and strategies to address inhalant abuse in Australia and makes recommendations for a national response to inhalant abuse. See Section 1.3.3 - Risks and harms associated with inhalant abuse (p.6).
d'Abbs, P. & MacLean, S., Department if Health and Ageing. Australian Government review examining literature about interventions designed to address volatile substance use. See Chapter 4 - Problems associated with VSM (pp. 19-21).