Volatile Solvents

ByGerald F. O’Malley, DO, Grand Strand Regional Medical Center;
Rika O’Malley, MD, Grand Strand Medical Center
Reviewed/Revised Dec 2022 | Modified Nov 2023

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 Adolescence).

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

  1. Adhesives

    • Airplane glue

    • Rubber cement

    • Polyvinyl chloride cement

  2. Aerosols

    • Spray paint

    • Hair spray

  3. Solvents and gases

    • Nail polish remover

    • Paint remover

    • Paint thinner

    • Typing correction fluid and thinner

    • Fuel gas

    • Cigarette lighter fluid

    • Gasoline

  4. Cleaning agents

    • Dry cleaning fluid

    • Spot remover

    • Degreaser

Symptoms of Volatile Solvent Use

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

Immediate effects

Users of volatile solvents 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 (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 preterm 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).

Diagnosis of Volatile Solvent Use

  • 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 of Volatile Solvent Use

  • 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.

More Information

The following English-language resources may be useful. Please note that THE MANUAL is not responsible for the content of these resources.

  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA): Federal agency that supports scientific research into drug use and its consequences and supplies information about commonly used drugs, research priorities and progress, clinical resources, and grant and funding opportunities.

  2. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): US Department of Health agency that leads public health efforts to improve behavioral health and provides resources, including treatment locators, toll-free helplines, practitioner training tools, statistics, and publications on a variety of substance-related topics.

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