Harms from inhaling volatile substances can be associated with the:
- method of use
- substance used
- environment in which volatile substances are used.
Death from volatile substance use (VSU) can occur as a result of direct toxic effects, suffocation, cardiac effects (i.e. ventricular fibrillation/cardiac arrest), or central nervous system (CNS) depression (e.g. respiratory depression).
Some volatile substances such as butane gas and aerosols can cause what is known as ‘sudden sniffing death’ where the heart is sensitised to the effects of adrenalin to the point where sudden exercise or alarm can cause a cardiac arrest (d’Abbs and MacLean, 2000).
For this reason it is important not to chase or frighten people who may be using volatile substances.
Death from VSU can also be caused by suffocation from the gas taking the place of oxygen in the lungs, either from using in enclosed spaces or from a plastic bag being placed over the head. Spraying some substances directly into the mouth can freeze the throat and airways, causing the person to suffocate.
High levels of use within a short period of time can lead to depressed breathing and loss of consciousness. In this state a person is at risk of choking if they vomit.
High doses can result in an overdose, causing disorientation, convulsions, seizures, unconsciousness, respiratory depression, cardiac arrhythmias and even death.
Long term use
Harms from chronic or long-term use will depend on the substance used and duration of use. These may include:
- neurological damage/cognitive impairment (effects thinking, learning, memory, movement, hearing, and sight)
- damage to the heart, lungs, liver and kidneys.
Other harms related to VSU include injuries or death due to accidents or taking risks while intoxicated such as drowning or from motor vehicle crashes or pedestrian accidents. There is also a risk of serious burn injury from fire or explosion due to the highly flammable nature of volatile substances.
For information on how to reduce VSU-related harm, see the Reducing VSU harm page of this website.
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Milford, R., MacLean, S., Catto, M., Thomson, N. and Debuyst, O. Australian Indigenous Health Review. Summarises key information from a number of reports and other documents on the nature of VSU and the impact on Aboriginal people. Includes a section on Harm Minimisation (p. 22).
Consensus-based clinical practice guideline for the management of volatile substance use in Australia
National Health and Medical Research Council. 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 9 - Education (pp. 85-90) for information to provide to users and families to reduce harm.
Drug and Alcohol Office, WA. Strong Spirit Strong Mind resource. Culturally appropriate material designed for use with Aboriginal people.
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 9 - Harm Reduction (pp. 93-97).
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 5.6 - Reducing harm for inhalant users (pp. 48-49)
Australian Drug Foundation. Link to source of Prevention Research Evaluation Report & Summaries.
Prevention of harms associated with volatile substance abuse - Prevention research evaluation report
Australian Drug Foundation. Examines the issue of volatile substance use, focusing on the prospects for well-coordinated community prevention.
Australian Drug Foundation. Provides an overview of published research relevant to the prevention of harms associated with volatile substance use.