Solvent abuse

Can’t stop sniffing that Sharpie? You might need some help, and we’re not saying that lightly. Drug abuse is pretty widely spoken about, people know the dangers of drinking alcohol or taking drugs but there’s also real danger when dealing with solvents. They’re around you everyday in the form of glues and paints but no one ever gives them a second thought. We’re here to tell you what it’s like when they start to take over your life.

A young woman is sitting at a desktop. She is holding her fists together, in thought. She is researching solvent abuse. This is a wide-angle image.

What are solvents?

Solvents can be found in household items such as fuel canisters, aerosol cans (for example: hairspray or air fresheners), tins or tubes of glue, paints, cigarette light refills and nitrous oxide a.k.a laughing gas. They contain volatile chemicals that can get you high. The vapours, which contain these chemicals, are often sniffed or breathed into the lungs. After that explanation, the answer to ‘What is solvent abuse’ is pretty logical – it’s the misuse of any of these products. 

What are the effects of taking solvents?

Solvents can actually mimic some of the effects of drugs, here are a few: 

  • The experience of solvent inhalation is like being intensely drunk for a short period of time (roughly 45 minutes)
  • Breathing and heart rate are depressed, and derealisation could kick 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 side-effects.
  • Blisters around the nose or mouth area

How can I get help for solvent abuse?

Go to your GP for substance abuse information or contact one of the organisations listed at the bottom of this article. Don’t think that just because it’s not drugs or alcohol, you’re okay. Solvents can be just as dangerous and potentially lethal if misused. Always remember, your struggles are valid and you deserve to get support for what you’re going through. 

If you or anyone you know is struggling with addiction, it’s important to get support. Feel free to contact our confidential support services at any time of day. Alternatively, you can contact the Re-solv helpline on  01785 810762 for free, non-judgmental advice and support.

What are the risks of taking solvents?

Like any substance, there are a tonne of risks to taking solvents. If you feel any of these symptoms, it’s not something that should be dismissed: 

  • 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. This can easily lead to sudden sniffing death.
  • 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. Not to mention its highly flammable nature could lead to fatal accidents. 

Basically, by misusing solvents you’re exponentially increasing your odds of dying. As soon as you see yourself going down a dark path, reach out for help. You’re never in this alone.

Have people died from taking solvents?

Yes. Sniffing gases, glues, or aerosols kills about 45 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 are 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.

Interestingly enough, there are higher numbers of solvent-related deaths in men. This may be due to differences in sniffing behaviour.

In 2015 it was reported that solvents were the second most common drugs offered to Scottish teenagers. What’s more, around 7.6% of secondary school pupils have used solvents within their (short) lifetime. These are pretty worrying statistics that show the prevalence of solvent abuse, especially among young people. This is because solvents are everyday items that you can easily get your hands on. Next time you do, just be aware of the risks. 

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. It’s still pretty dangerous, with butane-related incidents accounting for over half of solvent abuse deaths.

If you suspect that someone you know is taking solvents, it’s important not to jump to conclusions. Keep an eye on them for about a week or two and then have an open and honest conversation. The key is to make them feel safe and like they can come to you for anything.

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.

On a side note, we do NOT recommend using solvents to get a buzz, the risks just outweigh the benefits (like massively)

Solvents and the law

The law is pretty straight forward when it comes to solvents (for once). It’s illegal to supply solvents to persons under the age of 18 if the retailer knows or suspects the product is intended for solvent abuse. To find out more about other drugs and the law, click here. 

Next Steps

  • FRANK offers friendly, confidential advice on all things drugs-related. Call now on 0300 123 6600
  • 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

By Nishika Melwani

Updated on 28-Aug-2021