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Get The Facts

Drug dependency: inhalants

Information Services

Alcohol and Other Drugs

Drug dependency: inhalants

Inhalants refer to a group of household or industrial products such as aerosols, petrol, paint, glue and other forms of solvents, which are sniffed or inhaled for the purpose of getting 'high'. 


Inhalant use is also called chroming, volatile substance use, glue sniffing or petrol sniffing. It is associated with multiple health risks including brain injury. The vapors from the solvents are often sucked or inhaled from a bag or plastic bottle to be absorbed directly through the lungs and reach the brain.

Inhalants are a particular problem among younger age groups as it is seen as a cheap and easy way to get high. Like alcohol, inhalants are depressants and give the feeling of being high or intoxicated.

A person may start chroming for multiple reasons. For some, curiosity may trigger short-term experimentation. Other may use inhalants to cope with difficult feelings or fit in with a social group. Some will grow out of the practice as they develop other interests. A few will go on to become long-term dependent inhalant users. Generally these users will have other problems in their lives and feel unable to quit even if they dislike the practice.

Often other drugs such as alcohol, cannabis or ecstasy are consumed concurrently with inhalants, multiplying the short- and long-term health risks. It is important that use of inhalants be detected early to prevent serious health problems.


Health risks with inhalant use

Short- and long-term use of inhalants can cause damage to the brain, nervous system, liver and lungs. In the immediate stage a user may feel excitement and disinhibition; however this is often quickly replaced with headaches, disorientation and nausea.

Short-term health risks of inhalant use include:

  • agitation and disorientation
  • nose bleeds
  • sores around the mouth and nose
  • flu-like symptoms
  • bloodshot eyes
  • diarrhea and vomiting
  • reckless behaviour
  • abdominal pain
  • stupor
  • seizures. 

Long-term health risks include:

  • Permanent brain injury
  • Loss of balance and coordination
  • anemia
  • eyesight problems
  • hearing loss
  • Damage to major organs including the Heart, liver, kidneys. 


Cleaning products, correction fluid and aerosol sprays are particularly likely to cause permanent brain damage. The risk of permanent brain damage increases with heavy and frequent use. Death from chroming can occur and is usually due to accidents, such as suffocation caused by use of plastic bags to inhale fumes, choking on vomit when unconscious, and risk-taking behaviors. Hypoxic brain injury may occur when the air supply to the brain is cut off due to choking on vomit while unconscious.

Some inhalants can also indirectly cause sudden death by cardiac arrest, in a syndrome known as Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome. The anesthetic gases present in the inhalants can sensitize the user to adrenaline. In this state a sudden surge of adrenaline (e.g., from a frightening hallucination) can cause a fatal cardiac arrhythmia.


Effect of inhalants on the brain

Inhalants produce a vapor that is sniffed or inhaled and absorbed directly through the lung to reach the brain. The effects are immediate; as the chemicals are easily absorbed into the brain and other organs.

As there are many types of chemicals in the products that are inhaled, the way they affect the brain can differ. Generally, these chemicals are toxic to nerve cells in the central nervous system. Inhalant use can cause cell death or alteration of functioning. The result is long-term damage to functions of the brain; including concentration, memory, ability to plan and organize, and sense of balance and coordination.


Dependency & treatment

The body will develop tolerance with regular use of inhalants. A person may develop both a psychological dependence and a physical dependence. A psychological dependence means the inhaling becomes far more important than other activities of life. Chromers will form a craving and find it very difficult to stop. Chronic abuse may result in physical dependence where the body gets used to functioning with the inhalant present. Stopping abruptly in these cases can cause withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, depression, loss of appetite, irritation, aggression, dizziness, tremors and nausea.

Treatment is more effective if tailored to suit a person's specific situation and usually involves a combination of methods. The different options include individual counselling, group therapy, medication and supervised/home withdrawal. Early intervention is important before any permanent damage is done. Please contact your Brain Injury Association or local drug services for information.


What can parents do

It can be difficult to detect if your child is chroming. One clue to look for is an unusual amount of glue, solvent or aerosol containers in your child's possession. You may detect chemical smells on clothes or breath or unexpected and rapid 'drunken' behaviour. Sores around the nose and mouth can also be a sign of chroming.


If you suspect your child may be chroming it is best not to panic. If you stay calm your child is more likely to discuss the problem with you.


Really listen to what your child says and try to understand their point of view. They may have been experimenting at this stage, so the problem has been detected early.


Discuss with your child the risks of inhalant use. If your child is a regular user, they need your help and support, not condemnation. You should also look at the message your lifestyle sends to your child. Your use of legal drugs such as alcohol or tobacco can influence your child's attitudes to drugs.

References and further information


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