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Volatile solvents

Published on March 8, 2024 at 8:00 / Updated on March 26, 2024 at 8:00

Volatile solvents refer to a large group of chemical compounds found in countless household and industrial products (e.g., nail polish remover, butane, paint thinners, paint, glue, gasoline, lighter fluid, correction fluid, markers, hair spray, aerosol deodorants, non-stick cooking sprays, aerosol computer cleaning products, refrigerants and certain cleaning fluids, to name but a few).

Synonyms Highly varied class of substances many of which are derived from oil and natural gas. The most common substances are:
  • Ketones: acetone, butanone, etc.
  • Halogen compounds: fluorocarbons (Freon®), fluoromethane, etc.
  • Esters: amyl acetate, ethyl acetate
  • Hydrocarbons: benzene, butane, gas, hexane, naphtha, propane, toluene, xylene, etc.
Classification Central nervous system depressant:
  • Refers to a substance that slows mental functions by reducing the brain's overall activity and alertness.
Visual description
  • Liquids that evaporate at room temperature.
Mechanism of action
  • Appears to cause a quick form of initial excitation followed by a decreased frequency of excitation impulses on neuronal membranes.
Routes of administration These substances are inhaled and several methods can be used:
  • Glues: the product is placed in a paper bag and the user inhales the fumes from the bag (sniffing/snorting/bagging.)
  • Organic solvents: users soak a rag with solvent and place it over the nose and mouth to inhale the fumes (huffing).
  • The product is inhaled directly from its container.

Effects sought out by the user

  • Auditory, visual and tactile hallucinations
  • Drowsiness (after the initial euphoria)
  • Initial euphoria, disinhibition (5 to 45 minutes)

Common toxic effects

  • Confusion
  • Disorientation
  • Distortion of perception of the size of objects
  • Dizziness
  • Drowsiness
  • Eye, nose and throat irritations
  • Generalized muscle weakness
  • Headache
  • Hypotension
  • Inappropriate or aggressive behaviour
  • Incoherent ideas and thoughts (impaired judgement)
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Nystagmus (abnormal and repetitive eye movement)
  • Partial or total memory loss
  • Persistent bad breathe
  • Slurred speech
  • Stomach cramps and diarrhea
  • Stupor (inertia and insensivity, general numbness)
  • Tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
  • Uncoordinated movements
  • Unsteady gait

Overdose effects

  • Arrhythmias (irregular heart beat), bradycardia
  • Asphyxia
  • Coma
  • Convulsions
  • Numbness
  • Respiratory depression
  • Sudden death (as a result of cardiac arrest - butane and propane are the most commonly used substances)

Effects associated with chronic use

  • Antisocial behaviour
  • Blindness
  • Cognitive deficiencies, attention and concentration problems, problems with vision and short-term memory
  • Depression
  • Emphysema
  • Emotional instability
  • Hepatic and renal impairment
  • Loss of energy
  • Weight loss
  • Psychosis
  • Muscle spasms
  • Hearing loss
  • Heart failure
  • Behavioural disorders
  • Blood disorders (leukemia)

Tolerance (need to increase the dose to feel the same effect)

Tolerance develops gradually after frequent use.


Physical dependence is infrequent and is usually mild, while psychological dependence is relatively infrequent.


Possible, but rare. Symptoms are similar to those seen with other CNS depressants (e.g., opioids):

  • Abnormal drowsiness
  • Anxiety
  • Confusion
  • Depression
  • Dizziness
  • Excessive sweating
  • Hallucinations
  • Headache
  • Irritability
  • Loss of appetite
  • Muscle cramps
  • Nausea
  • Sleep problems
  • Tremor
Onset and duration of action
Route of administrationOnset of actionPeakDuration ofaction
InhalationVery fast, effects are almost instantA few minutesUsually, from 5 to 30 minutes, rarely up to an hour

Intoxication management

  • No antidote available.
  • Treatment is mainly symptomatic.
Many different street drugs are sold under the same name. Furthermore, nothing guarantees the quantity, purity or even the content of a street drug in spite of the fact that it may, in some cases, look like medication.

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