Last published: July 16, 2021
What are inhalants?
Inhalants are common household, industrial and medical products that produce vapours, which some people inhale (breathe in) to make them feel intoxicated or high.1
There are many different types of inhalants and they all have different risks and effects.
Glue, gas, gasoline, sniff, huff, chroming, poppers.
How are Inhalants used?
Inhalants are breathed in through the nose or mouth. They may be sprayed into a plastic bag, poured into a bottle or soaked onto a cloth or sleeve before being inhaled.
Sometimes they are inhaled directly from the container or are sprayed directly into the mouth or nose. This method is very dangerous because it can cause suffocation.2
Effects of inhalants
There is no safe level of drug use. Use of any drug always carries some risk. It’s important to be careful when taking any type of drug.
Inhalants affect everyone differently, based on:
- size, weight and health
- whether the person is used to taking it
- whether other drugs are taken around the same time
- the amount taken
- the strength of the drug
- amount of fresh air breathed while sniffing
- amount of physical activity before and after sniffing.
Sniffing can cause:
- pneumonia from inhaling vomit
- brain damage
- abnormal heart rhythm
- sudden death
- asphyxiation (if using a plastic bag).3
Sniffing is always risky, but some situations make it even more dangerous:
- sniffing in an enclosed space or indoors
- running or doing other physical activity after sniffing (could cause death due to cardiac sensitisation)
- mixing sniffing with other drugs, including prescribed medication and illicit substances
- sniffing when the person has other health problems.3, 4
If you inhale a substance many times or use a particularly strong inhalant, you could overdose. Call an ambulance straight away by dialling triple zero (000) if you have any of these symptoms (ambulance officers don’t need to involve the police):
- nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea
- irregular heartbeat
- chest pain
- blackout, seizures and coma.1,4
Sudden sniffing death
Inhaling certain substances has been known to cause sudden death. It is believed that chemicals in these products can cause heart failure, particularly if the person is stressed or does heavy exercise after inhaling. However, this is very rare.3, 4
Low aromatic fuels
Unleaded petrol has been replaced by low aromatic fuels such as BP’s Opal fuel in some rural and remote communities in Australia. Sniffing low aromatic fuels does not produce a high, but can still cause damage to a person’s health including death.6
In the days after inhalant use, you may experience:
- mental numbness.1
Regular use of inhalants may eventually cause:
- irritability and depression
- memory loss
- reduced attention span and ability to think clearly
- pimples around the mouth and lips
- pale appearance
- weight loss
- reduced growth potential (height)
- excessive thirst
- loss of sense of smell and hearing
- problems with blood production, which may result in anaemia, irregular heartbeat, heart muscle damage
- chest pain and angina
- indigestion and stomach ulcers
- liver and kidney damage
- needing to use more to get the same effect
- dependence on inhalants
- financial, work and social problems.1,4,6
Most of these long-term effects can be reversed if use is stopped. However, some inhalants can cause permanent damage.5
Some of the chemicals in inhalants can build up in the body and damage the stomach, intestines, brain, nervous system, kidneys and liver.1
Inhalants and Mental Health
Regular inhalant use is associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety disorders and problems with other drugs and/or alcohol.3 This doesn’t necessarily mean that inhalants cause these problems, but the use of inhalants can bring on these issues or make them worse. People who use inhalants are also more likely to experience stressful events such as having problems at school, at home or at work.3
Tolerance and dependence
People who regularly use inhalants can quickly become dependent on them. People who are dependent on inhalants might find that using them becomes far more important than other things in their lives, such as work, sport, socialising or study.3 They may also develop a tolerance to it, which means they need to take larger amounts of inhalants to get the same effect.3
Using inhalants with other drugs
The effects of taking inhalants with other drugs – including over-the-counter or prescribed medications – can be unpredictable and dangerous.
- Inhalants + alcohol, benzodiazepines or opioids: enormous strain on the body, and can affect breathing rate and may increase the risk of losing consciousness or suffocating.3, 4
Giving up inhalants after using them for a long time is challenging because the body has to get used to functioning without them. Withdrawal symptoms usually start 24-48 hours after the last use, and may last for 2 to 5 days.5 These symptoms can include:
- headache, nausea and stomach pain
- tiredness, shakiness, tremors
- hallucinations and visual disorders, such as seeing spots.4
If your use of inhalants is affecting your health, family, relationships, work, school, financial or other life situations, you can find help and support.
Call 1300 85 85 84 to speak to a real person and get answers to your questions as well as advice on practical ‘next steps’.
You can also search our list of Support Services for services in your local area:
Inhalant use is not a criminal offence in any Australian state or territory.
In recent years, some Australian States and Territories have revised police powers to intervene in inhalant use in two main ways. Police are authorised to:
- Take away inhalants and related equipment
- Pick up young people who are using inhalants, and release them into the care of a responsible person, or a place of safety.
It is also illegal in some states and territories to sell or supply products to someone if it is known they will be used for the purpose of inhaling.
State/territory legislation on inhalant sales
It is an offence in Queensland, Western Australia, Victoria, South Australia, New South Wales and the Northern Territory to knowingly supply an inhalant to a person for the purpose of intentional inhalation.
Sections 57-60T of the Drugs, Poisons and Controlled Substances Act 1981
Drugs, Poisons and Controlled Substances (Volatile Substances) Regulations 2004
Section 19 of the Controlled Substances Act 1984.
Section 42D of the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Land Rights Act 1981.
Section 7 of the Public Intoxication Act 1984
New South Wales
There is no specific legislation in NSW that refers directly to inhalant abuse only legislation referring to intoxicated persons.
Part 14 and 16 of the Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Act 2002
Section 9 of the Summary Offences Act 1988
Part 2, Part 4 and Part 5 Sections 52 of the Volatile Substance Abuse Prevention Act 2005
Australian Capital Territory
There is no specific legislation in the ACT that refers directly to inhalant abuse, only legislation referring to intoxicated persons.
- 24.8% of Australians aged 14 years and over have used inhalants one or more times in their life.8
- 1.4% of Australians aged 14 years and over have used inhalants in the previous 12 months.8
- Young Australians (aged 14–29) first try inhalants at 18.7 years on average.8
- 18% of all students have deliberately sniffed inhalants at least once.9
- Brands B, Sproule, B & Marshman, J, editor. Drugs & drug abuse. 3rd ed. Ontario: Addiction Research Foundation; 1998.
- Drug and Alcohol Office. Inhalant Use: A Guide for Parents and Families. Government of Western Australia; 2014.
- Black E, Maclean S, Duncan J et al. Inhalants: what you need to know. UNSW Sydney: National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre; 2014.
- National Health and Medical Research Council. Caring for people who sniff petrol or other volatile substances: a Quick Reference Guide for Health Workers. Melbourne: National Health and Medical Research Council; 2011.
- Campbell A. The Australian Illicit Drug Guide: Every Person's Guide to Illicit Drugs--Their Use, Effects and History, Treatment Options and Legal Penalties: Black Inc; 2001.
- Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Review into the Operation of the Low Aromatic Fuel Act 2013. Canberra: Australian Government 2019.
- Crossin R, Lawrence AJ, Andrews ZB, Churilov L, Duncan JR. Growth changes after inhalant abuse and toluene exposure: A systematic review and meta-analysis of human and animal studies. Human & Experimental Toxicology. 2018;38(2):157-72.
- Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2019. Canberra: AIHW; 2020.
- Guerin N, White V. ASSAD 2017 Statistics & Trends: Australian Secondary Students’ Use of Tobacco, Alcohol, Over-the-counter Drugs, and Illicit Substances. Centre for Behavioural Research in Cancer: Cancer Council Victoria; 2020.