May 12, 2023

Inhalants and young people

Young people sitting in urban setting

What are inhalants?

‘Inhalants’ are common household, industrial and medical products that produce vapours, which are breathed in (inhaled) to make someone feel intoxicated or ‘high’.1 It’s also commonly referred to as sniffing or chroming.

The most common types of inhalants used are nangs/nitrous oxide (laughing/happy gas) and amyl nitrate (poppers, jungle juice).2 However, there are a number of other common household and industrial products that are also inhaled or sniffed such as deodorants, hairspray and spray paint, and they all have different risks and effects.3

Inhalant use by young people

Although inhalant use occurs across all ages, it is more commonly reported in younger people.

Young Australians (aged 14–29) were found to have first tried inhalants around the age of 18.7 years.2

A 2017 survey of Australian secondary school students found:

  • 18% of all students have deliberately sniffed inhalants at least once
  • 13% have deliberately sniffed inhalants in the last year
  • 4% had sniffed in the last week.4

Most young people who sniff are experimenting.

Because inhalants are easy to get, young people might try sniffing a few times, with less than 2% of students having sniffed inhalants 10 or more times.5

Young people in secondary school are more likely to report sniffing, with most growing out of it as they get older.4

However, young people experiencing significant disadvantage, or dealing with emotional trauma or family conflict may be more likely to continue sniffing.5

Why do young people sniff inhalants?

While young people often sniff inhalants because they’re easy to get, research suggests that those experiencing disadvantage also sniff to:

  • cope with trauma and stress
  • overcome boredom and loneliness
  • deal with emotional and physical pain
  • manage hunger.7

How do inhalants work?

Inhalants slow down breathing and heart rate. They work on the same brain cells as alcohol.8

Fumes get to the brain quickly via the lungs and the effects are almost instant. The inhalant ‘high’ is short though, so people may keep sniffing to ‘top up’.

What are the risks?

People who regularly sniff inhalants might experience:

  • accidents e.g., falls
  • breathing problems e.g., cough, chest pain
  • skin irritation
  • blurred vision
  • paranoia, hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that aren’t real)
  • depression
  • short-term memory problems tremors and other movement problems.8-11

Sudden death

There have been certain instances where inhalant use has caused death. This can happen as a result of:

  • sudden sniffing death – when someone experiences cardiac arrest or heart failure after using inhalants. The chemicals in inhalants can cause a spike in adrenaline which the heart is sensitive to, resulting in cardiac arrest. This is particularly risky if the person is stressed or does heavy exercise after inhaling.12,13
  • suffocation – this is when the gas inhaled takes the place of oxygen in the lungs, either from using in enclosed spaces (without fresh air), or from dangerous practices such as placing a plastic bag over the head. Spraying some substances directly into the mouth can freeze the throat and airways, causing the person to suffocate.14

What should I do if someone is sniffing?

  • assess your safety and theirs - are they near a main road, or on a roof?
  • stay calm and friendly
  • open doors and windows to clear fumes
  • remove the substance if possible, but don’t struggle or argue with them
  • there is no need to call the police unless there is a threat to safety.15

If the person is experiencing any of the below symptoms, they could be experiencing an overdose or ‘acute intoxication’. In this scenario call an ambulance straight away by dialling triple zero (000), (ambulance officers don’t need to involve the police):

  • nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea
  • irregular heartbeat
  • chest pain
  • hallucinations
  • blackout, seizures and coma.1,16

What should I do after they stop sniffing?

When a person stops sniffing, they should start to recover within about 10-15 minutes.4 If they were experiencing an acute intoxication, it may take a little longer before they are fully recovered.17

You should:

  • encourage them to rest
  • ask how they are. They might feel hungover as the effects wear off and could experience anxiety, headaches or sore throat. If the inhalant was relieving pain, the pain may return
  • offer water and soft food - sniffing reduces appetite so they may be hungry afterwards
  • encourage them to change clothes, as their clothes may be flammable
  • if they’re having problems breathing, call an ambulance.10

Where can I find more information and support?

  • Headspace
    1800 650 890
    Supports young people with mental health, physical health (including sexual health), alcohol and other drugs or work and study support. Alcohol and drug counsellors are available, and centres are located across the country - you can find a map here.
  • National Alcohol and Other Drug Hotline 
    1800 250 015
    Free and confidential, 24/7 information, support and referrals. You will be automatically directed to the Alcohol and Drug Information Service (ADIS) in the state/territory you are calling from.
    In NSW, ADIS also has a live webchat service Monday-Friday 8.30am-5pm, including public holidays.
  • Parentline – see website for the number in your state or territory
  • Parent and Family Drug Support Line (WA)
    9442 5050 or 1800 653 203 (toll free for country callers)
  • Family Drug Support
    1300 368 186
  • Family Drug Help
    1300 660 068

Resources to help you discuss drugs with young people

  1. Brands B, Sproule B, Marshman J. Drugs and Drug Abuse. Toronto: Addiction Research Foundation; 1998 [22.02.2023].
  2. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2019 Canberra: AIHW; 2020 [11.04.2023].
  3. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). What are inhalants? 2011 [27.04.2023].
  4. 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; 2018 [cited 2022 19 Sep]. 92].
  5. Lubman DI. Inhalant misuse in youth: time for a coordinated response. Medical Journal of Australia [Internet]. 2006 [24.04.2023]; 185(6):[327 p.].
  6. Karam J, Sinclair G, Rackstraw L,. Dignity, Diversion, Home and Hope: A Review of Interventions for Volatile Substance Misuse in Regional North Queensland.: Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet; 2014 [02.05.2023].
  7. Cruz SL.The Latest Evidence in the Neuroscience of Solvent Misuse: An Article Written for Service Providers. Substance Use & Misuse [Internet]. 2011 [02.05.2023]; 46(sup1):[62-7 pp.].
  8. Drug and Alcohol Office. Inhalant Use: A Guide for Parents and Families: Government of Western Australia; 2014 [02.05.2023].
  9. Wu L-T, Howard MO. Psychiatric disorders in inhalant users: Results from The National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions. Drug and Alcohol Dependence [Internet]. 2007 [02.05.2023]; 88(2):[146-55 pp.].
  10. Maruff P, Burns CB, Tyler P, Currie BJ, Currie J. Neurological and cognitive abnormalities associated with chronic petrol sniffing. Brain [Internet]. 1998 [02.05.2023]; 121(10):[1903-17 pp.].
  11. Ford JB, Sutter ME, Owen KP, Albertson TE. Volatile Substance Misuse: An Updated Review of Toxicity and Treatment. Clinical Reviews in Allergy & Immunology [Internet]. 2014 [02.05.2023]; 46(1):[19-33 pp.].
  12. 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 [02.05.2023].
  13. Black E, Maclean S, Duncan J et al. Inhalants: what you need to know. UNSW Sydney: National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre; 2014 [02.05.2023].
  14. Government of Western Australia Mental Health Commission. About VSU - Harms  [21.04.2023].
  15. Jackson CE, Currie BJ, Cairney S, Maruff PT, Snyder PJ. Hunger and the perception of the scent of petrol: A potential neurobiological basis for increased risk of petrol inhalation abuse. Addiction Research & Theory [Internet]. 2009 [26.04.2023]; 17(5):[518-24 pp.].
  16. 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 [07.02.2023].
  17. Government of Western Australia Mental Health Commission. About VSU - Acute intoxication 2015 [21.04.2023].

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