Reducing VSU harm

It is not always possible to convince someone to stop using volatile substances. For those who choose to keep using volatile substances, it is important to reduce the harms that can arise in the meantime.

Providing accurate volatile substance use (VSU) information and support should include the following:

Some volatile substances are more risky than others:

  • toluene, petrol – long term use more likely to cause cognitive impairment/neurological damage
  • aerosols, butane – highest risk for sudden death.

Note: it is important to be clear that there are risks associated with the inhalation of any volatile substance.

Certain methods of inhaling can significantly increase risk of harm:

  • spraying directly into the mouth (may freeze or swell larynx)
  • plastic bag over the head (suffocation)
  • container against face whilst lying down (suffocation)
  • lying on a soaked mattress (fire risk and overdose)

Places / situations which can increase risk associated with VSU:

  • using alone
  • near a naked flame/camp fires
  • in enclosed spaces
  • near roads or traffic
  • high places i.e. on roof tops
  • near water, beach, lakes.

Mixing volatile substances with other drugs and/or alcohol can increase risk of:

  • intoxication (for more information, see the Intoxication page of this website)
  • overdose (for more information, see the Effects page of this website)
  • accidents, falls, burns.

It is important to know how to respond in an emergency:

  • know what to do in an emergency situation (for more information, see the Acute intoxication page of this website)
  • be aware of signs of overdose
  • don't chase someone who is intoxicated
  • call for help!

Therefore, some key harm reduction strategies for working with volatile substance users may include the following:

  • discourage people from using volatile substances
  • discourage people from using volatile substances alone
  • discourage people from using volatile substances in small, enclosed spaces
  • discourage risky methods of use (directly into mouth, plastic bag over the head)
  • avoid using in risky situations (near roads, water or open flames)
  • avoid more dangerous substances (i.e. butane and aerosols)
  • avoid smoking when using volatile substances
  • don’t mix with other drugs
  • don’t exercise during or after using volatile substances
  • don’t surprise or chase volatile substance users
  • call an ambulance or health worker when help is needed.

For more information, see the Harms page of this website.