What is volatile substance use?

Volatile substance use (VSU) is the deliberate inhalation of substances, which produce a vapour or gas at room temperature, for their intoxicating effects. It is commonly referred to as 'sniffing', ‘solvent use’, ‘inhalant use’ or 'chroming'.


The availability of products containing volatile substances is almost limitless. All volatile substances such as aerosols, solvents and gases have legitimate uses and can be legally purchased from a wide range of retail outlets including supermarkets, hardware stores, petrol stations, delicatessens and newsagents. They can also be found in and around most homes, businesses and industrial sites.

Method of use

Volatile substances are generally inhaled directly into the mouth or nose from its container or from a plastic bag, bottle or through a cloth.


Research indicates that most VSU commonly occurs among young people from the ages of 12 to 16 years, and that it steadily decreases with age. The majority of people cease VSU after a short period of time with only a small minority continuing on to long-term or chronic use.

For more information on the prevalence of VSU, see the Prevalence page of this website.

While VSU occurs across all socio-economic groups and is an issue for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, research indicates that prevalence of VSU is highest among young people from socio-economically deprived and marginalised groups, and that rates are particularly high among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (National Health and Medical Research Council, 2011).

VSU tends to be episodic, occurs in cycles and is often highly localised in nature. It occurs in urban, regional and remote areas, however patterns within these settings tend to differ. 

In urban settings, VSU is characterised by a larger proportion of experimental use by young people with some chronic use among the homeless population, mostly young people/young adults. 

In regional and remote settings, VSU tends to be opportunistic in nature based on availability and movement of users between towns/communities, and features a higher proportion of chronic users.

Patterns of VSU

Patterns of use for individuals who use volatile substances are commonly described as experimental, social or chronic.

  • Experimental use is characterised by one-off or a few occasions of use due to curiosity or peer influence. It is often opportunistic and short-lived.
  • Social use occurs more regularly within the context of a group activity. It is often perceived as fun and enjoyable and is not seen by users to have much of a negative impact. 
  • Chronic use is often long-term, may involve dependent, daily use, drug-seeking behaviours and poly-drug use. It is often associated with familial, social and/or psychological problems, many of which precede the use of volatile substances. Chronic users often use alone or in isolated circumstances, or with the company of other long-term users.

Reasons for VSU

Most people use volatile substances for similar reasons to alcohol or other drugs. However, volatile substances may be particularly attractive to some people because they are cheap, easily accessible, legal and provide a quick intoxication.

Other reasons for VSU may include: for fun/excitement, for the feeling of intoxication, to be part of a group, to escape/cope with problems, curiosity, to shock/defy authority and to alleviate boredom. In some cases, the use of volatile substances is to block hunger pains and to dull physical and emotional pain (d'Abbs and MacLean, 2008).  

See also Types of volatile substances page of this website.

List of related resources laid out in a table.

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).

Tags VSU General | Publication

2011 NHMRC-1i

Inhalants fact sheet

National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, University of New South Wales, Faculty of Medicine. Factsheet on inhalants.

Tags Education | Fact sheet

2011 NDARC-1

Inhalants: How drugs affect you

Alcohol and Drug Foundation. Provides facts about inhalants including latest statistics about use, affects on the body, interaction with other drugs, tolerance, dependence, treatment, withdraw and tips for harm reduction. Pamphlet can be purchased via this link.

Tags Effects/harms | Booklet

2011 ADF-1

Volatile substance misuse: A review of interventions

d'Abbs, P. & MacLean, S., Department if Health and Ageing. Australian Government review examining literature about interventions designed to address volatile substance use. See Part One - Volatile Substance misuse as a problem (pp7 - 27).

Tags Prevalence | Report

2008 DHA-1i