Solvent abuse

Sniffing some PVA seems harmless, but there are risks involved with solvent abuse. We invesitgate what they are.

Girl sniffing glue

Be careful you don't stick your nostrils together

What are solvents?

Solvents can be found in household items such as lighter gas refills, fuel canisters, aerosol cans (for example: hairspray, deodorants or air fresheners), tins or tubes of glue, paints, thinners and correcting fluids. The vapours are sniffed or breathed into the lungs.

What are the effects of taking solvents?

  • The experience of solvent inhalation is like being intensely drunk for a short period of time
  • Breathing and heart rate are depressed, and feeling of unreality kicks in
  • Users may feel thick-headed, dizzy, giggly, and dreamy
  • Some feel nauseous and may vomit. With larger doses, users may hallucinate;
  • The effects last between 15 to 45 minutes
  • Headaches or feelings of drowsiness are common after-effects.

How can I get help for solvent addiction?

Go to your GP or contact one of the organisations listed at the bottom of this article.

What are the risks of taking solvents?

  • Abusing gases, aerosols or glue can kill, even on the first go
  • Sniffing solvents reduces breathing and heart rate and can cause damage to the nasal membrane
  • Spraying solvents down the throat may lead to instant death
  • Users risk suffocation if inhaling solvents from a plastic bag over the head
  • Users (when high) are more prone to accidents because their senses are affected
  • Long-term abuse can damage the brain, liver and kidneys
  • Repeated use of leaded petrol can cause lead poisoning

Have people died from taking solvents?

Yes. Sniffing gases, glues, or aerosols kills about 50 people a year.

In 60% of deaths from VSA, there is no known history of solvent abuse. This suggests that for many, the first time they try solvents is fatal. Although young people is often seen as the group most associated with solvent abuse, as many 25-35 year-olds die from solvent abuse as those under the age of 25.

For adults, the home was by far the most common place of fatal abuse, but for those under 18 years-old the fatal abuse was almost as likely to have been in a public place or someone else’s home.

Solvent abusers can be male or female, although there are higher numbers of solvent-related deaths in boys. This may be due to differences in sniffing behaviour.

The 2003 annual report from the European Union’s drug agency warned that after cannabis and alcohol, solvents are the substances most commonly used by those aged 15 and 16 in the EU, and in the UK one in seven 15 and 16 year-olds sniff solvents to get high.

How do people die?

Over half of the deaths that have been linked to solvent sniffing appear to result from the direct toxic effects of the chemicals that were sniffed. But other deaths result from accidents, choking on vomit or suffocation.

Sniffing solvents may cause intoxication similar to the effects of alcohol. So a sniffer may become drowsy, confused, aggressive, may take more risks than they would when sober, and so on. Accidents are, therefore, quite common and sometimes fatal.

Gas fuels continue to be associated with the majority of deaths. In 2006, butane lighter fuel accounted for two-thirds of VSA deaths (33 of the 49 deaths). Sniffing the butane gas in lighters causes the heart to beat irregularly which can induce a heart attack.

If you’re planning to get high on solvents:

  • Accidental death or injury can happen – steer clear of unsafe environments such as a canal or river bank, on a roof or near a busy road or train line.
  • Sniffing to the point of becoming unconscious also risks death through choking on vomit. Try to be around people who are straight and can help if things go wrong.
  • Avoid any method of use that obstructs breathing (such as sniffing with a plastic bag over the head) as death from suffocation may result.

Solvents and the law:

It is illegal to supply solvents to persons under the age of 18 if the retailer knows or suspects the product is intended for abuse.

Photo of girl sniffing glue by Shutterstock

Next Steps

  • FRANK offers friendly, confidential advice on all things drugs-related. Call now on 0300 123 6600
  • Go to Community for Recovery for counselling and help with solvent abuse through live chat, text, email or their helpline.
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.
  • Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.


drugs a-z


Updated on 29-Sep-2015