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Volatile Solvents

By

Gerald F. O’Malley

, DO, Grand Strand Regional Medical Center;


Rika O’Malley

, MD, Albert Einstein Medical Center

Last full review/revision Jun 2020| Content last modified Jun 2020
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NOTE: This is the Consumer Version. DOCTORS: Click here for the Professional Version
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Topic Resources

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).

(See also Drug Use and Abuse.)

Common Products That Contain Volatile Solvents

  • Adhesives

    • Airplane glue

    • Rubber cement

    • Polyvinyl chloride cement

  • Aerosols

    • Spray paint

    • Hair spray

  • Solvents and gases

    • Nail polish remover

    • Paint remover

    • Paint thinner

    • Typing correction fluid and thinner

    • Fuel gas

    • Cigarette lighter fluid

    • Gasoline

  • Cleaning agents

    • Dry cleaning fluid

    • Spot remover

    • Degreaser

Symptoms

Inhaling the gas from volatile solvents causes immediate and sometimes long-term symptoms.

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.

Overdose

Some volatile solvents are metabolized into toxic substances. For example, methylene chloride (dichloromethane, an ingredient in some paint removers) is converted to carbon monoxide in the body, and inhalation can result in carbon monoxide poisoning. Methanol (wood alcohol) 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.

Withdrawal

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).

Diagnosis

  • 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.

Treatment

  • 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.

Volatile Nitrites

Nitrites (amyl , butyl, or isobutyl nitrite) are sold with street names such as Poppers, Locker Room, and Rush.

These drugs briefly lower blood pressure, produce dizziness, and cause flushing, followed by a rapid heartbeat. These effects combined may produce a sense of excitement and euphoria. People also use these drugs because they believe that they enhance sexual pleasure. When used with sildenafil (used to treat erectile dysfunction), these nitrite drugs may greatly lower blood pressure, which can cause fainting, heart attack, or stroke. Nitrites can also cause methemoglobinemia, which is a blood disorder that interferes with the ability of the blood to carry oxygen.

Nitrous oxide: This gas (laughing gas) is used as an anesthetic. It is also used as a propellant in cans and dispensers of whipped cream. Nitrous oxide is sometimes abused because it produces a sense of euphoria and a pleasant dreamlike state. Prolonged exposure to nitrous oxide can cause vitamin B12 deficiency, which leads to numbness and weakness in the legs and arms, which can be permanent. Nitrous oxide filled balloons are illicitly sold and used at rock concerts and athletic events.

More Information

Drugs Mentioned In This Article

Generic Name Select Brand Names
VIAGRA
NOTE: This is the Consumer Version. DOCTORS: Click here for the Professional Version
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