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Volatile Solvents

By Gerald F. O’Malley, DO, Professor of Emergency Medicine, Sidney Kimmel School of Medicine, Thomas Jefferson University and Hospital ; Rika O’Malley, MD, Attending Physician, Department of Emergency Medicine, Einstein Medical Center

(See also Drug Use and Abuse.)

Volatile solvents are liquids that easily vaporize into a gas. When inhaled, the gas can cause a state of intoxication and long-term nerve and organ damage.

Volatile solvents are found in many common household products, such as adhesives, paint, and cleaning fluid. Thus, children and adolescents can easily obtain them. In the United States, about 10% of adolescents have inhaled solvents (see also Substance Use and Abuse in Adolescents).

The product may be sprayed into a plastic bag and inhaled (bagging, sniffing, or snorting), or a cloth soaked with the product may be placed next to the nose or in the mouth (huffing).


Immediate effects

Users rapidly become intoxicated. They may become dizzy, drowsy, and confused. Speech may be slurred. They may have difficulty standing and walking, resulting in an unsteady gait. Users may also become excited, impulsive, and irritable.

Later, perceptions and sense of reality may be distorted, resulting in illusions, hallucinations, and delusions. Users experience a euphoric, dreamy high, culminating in a short period of sleep. They may become delirious and confused, with mood swings. Thinking and coordination may be impaired. Intoxication can last anywhere from a few minutes to more than an hour.


Some volatile solvents are metabolized into toxic substances. For example, methylene chloride (dichlormethane, an ingredient in some paint removers) is converted to carbon monoxide in the body, and inhalation can result in carbon monoxide poisoning. Methanol inhalation leads to toxic by-products that cause acidification of the blood and eye problems.

Death can occur suddenly, even the first time one of these products is directly inhaled, because breathing becomes very slow and shallow or because heart rhythm is disturbed (called arrhythmia).

Long-term effects

Chronic use or exposure to solvents (including exposure in the workplace) can severely damage the brain, peripheral nerves, heart, kidneys, liver, and lungs. In addition, bone marrow may be damaged, impairing red blood cell production and causing anemia, or leukemia might occur. The skin around the mouth and nose can get irritated (huffer's eczema). Use in pregnancy can result in premature birth and fetal solvent syndrome, which causes symptoms similar to those of fetal alcohol syndrome.


With chronic use, people become somewhat tolerant to the solvent’s effects. People may become psychologically dependent on solvents, with a strong urge to continue using the solvents. But physical dependence does not occur. That is, stopping the drug does not cause unpleasant symptoms (withdrawal).


  • A doctor's evaluation

  • History of exposure to solvents

Doctors usually base the diagnosis on what people or their friends tell the doctor. Routine drug screens cannot detect volatile solvents, although, if necessary, specialized tests may detect these substances.


  • Treating any organ damage

  • Drug counseling

Treating children and adolescents who use inhalants involves evaluating for and treating any organ damage.

Recovery rates from inhalant use are among the poorest for any mood-altering substance. Treatment of solvent-dependent teenagers is difficult, and relapse is common. However, most users stop by the end of adolescence. Education and counseling to improve mental health and social skills and to manage sociologic problems may help.

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