Sniffing for a high

In South Africa it’s a common sight to see street children sniffing glue from a plastic bag. Just a whiff as you pass by is enough to make you dizzy.

Street children are not the only ones sniffing inhalants - it is becoming a dangerous practice among teens of all ages and across social classes.

A recent study in the US revealed shocking results. According to the study about 1.1 million 12 – 17 year olds admitted to using inhalants last year. Furthermore about 600 000 teens start using inhalants every year.

The study further found that inhalants often acted as the gateway drug with users frequently moving on to marijuana, or abusing over-the-counter medications. Inhalants are a popular gateway drug as they are cheaper and more accessible.

The study revealed that teens did not believe sniffing inhalants were as dangerous as taking illegal drugs.

Inhalant abuse in SA
According to the South African National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (Sanca) recent statistics have shown that inhalant abuse is very low. Over the last three years less than 1% use has been reported. They cited that the main reason for this is that it is predominately used by street children. Most street children go to community outpatient programmes for treatment.

Carry Bekker, Director of Stepping Stones Addiction Centre says, "It is fairly prevalent, especially among the lower socio-economic groups and very prevalent amongst street children."

According to Bekker inhalants are generally used by early adolescents and even younger. It should be noted that inhalant abuse is very addictive.

What are inhalants?
Inhalants come in different forms such as glue, petrol and laughing gas. These give off breathable chemical vapours that can cause mind-altering effects.

There are different categories of inhalants:

  • Solvents – household or industrial, such as paint thinners and different types of glues.
  • Art or office supply solvents – correction fluids, felt-tip fluid
  • Gases – used in many products, including lighters or refrigeration gases
  • Aerosol propellants – spray paints, hair or deodorant sprays
  • Medical anaesthetic gases – ether chloroform and laughing gas
  • Amyl nitrate – poppers

Inhalants are breathed in through the nose or mouth. They are sometimes sniffed from an open container or 'huffed' from a cloth soaked in the substance and held to the face. The open container or soaked cloth is often placed in a paper or plastic bag, which concentrates whatever substance is being inhaled.

The effects
Most inhalants produce a feeling of temporary contentment, pleasure and detachment.

When the vapours are inhaled, the body becomes starved of oxygen which forces the heart to beat faster to increase blood flow to the brain. The high begins a few seconds after inhalation and can include dizziness, slurred speech, lack of co-ordination, hallucinations and delusions. The high only lasts for a few minutes and users inhale repeatedly to stay high.

Health hazards
Inhalant abuse can have serious long-term health effects.

Chronic use can lead to brain damage or nerve damage, damage to the heart, lungs, liver and kidneys. Extended use can also affect thinking, vision, hearing and movement.

Sniffing inhalants can also lead to heart failure and death. Heart failure is caused by chemicals interfering with the heart’s regulating system, which could cause the heart to stop beating.

High concentrations of inhalants also cause death from asphyxiation, suffocation, convulsions, seizure, coma, choking or fatal injury from accidents.

The effects of specific inhalants:

  • Toulene – found in spray paint, glue, nail polish - can cause hearing loss, spinal cord or brain damage and liver and kidney failure.
  • Trichloroethylene – found in correction and cleaning fluids - can cause hearing loss and liver and kidney failure.
  • Hexane – found in glue and petrol - can cause limb spasm and liver and kidney failure.
  • Nitrous oxide – found in whipped cream dispensers and gas cylinders - can cause limb spasm and blackouts.
  • Benzene – found in petrol - can cause bone marrow damage.

Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome
Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome (SSDS) is the most common cause of death among regular inhalant abusers. A victim may be trying it for the first time, or could be a frequent user. According to studies 22% of inhalant abusers who die of SSDS are first-time users.

SSDS happens when a user gets surprised or shocked while sniffing or huffing. This often happens when the user is caught sniffing. An exciting or scary hallucination can also trigger SSDS.

When the user is surprised or shocked, a sudden flow of epinephrine (adrenaline) is released. Epinephrine helps to regulate the functions of the body such as the heart rate.

When a person is highly stimulated by fear or a confrontation, further amounts of epinephrine are released into the bloodstream to prepare the body for action. Blood pressure, heart rate and cardiac activity increases.

Because of the presence of inhalants in the body, the heart muscle is more sensitive to epinephrine, and when it reaches the heart, it suffers an irregular heart beat (arrhythmia). Within seconds the user can be killed.

Know the signs
Because they are often common household products, it isn’t easy to pick up if someone is abusing inhalants.

Here are some signs to look out for:

  • Depression
  • Drunk or dazed behaviour
  • Red or runny nose
  • Watery, red eyes
  • Chemical breath odour
  • Nosebleeds
  • Nausea or loss of appetite
  • Irritability, anxiety or restlessness
  • Hiding objects such as hair spray or pieces of cloth

How can you help?

  • Speak about the dangers of inhalant abuse to your child
  • Be aware of products that can be abused
  • Keep an eye on all potentially dangerous products in your home
  • If you suspect someone is abusing inhalants, encourage the person to seek professional help

(Leandra Engelbrecht, Health24, May 2008)


-Carry Bekker, Director, Stepping Stones Addiction Centre
- South African National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (Sanca)
-CBS News. Tweens favour inhalants. 13 March 2008.
-CESAR – Drug information Inhalants
-Hedl, J. Inhalant Abuse: Deadly, on the Rise Again, Linked to Delinquency and Violence, and Preventable. Journal of School Health. July 2007
-Highbeam Encyclopedia. Poison vapours: the truth about inhalants: inhalants can cause harm to the whole body, including long-lasting damage to the brain, physical disabilities, and even death. Science World 2005
-Inhalants: The deadly dangers to children and adults of accidental and intentional abuse
-NIDA for Teens: Facts on Drugs – Inhalants
-Parents – The Anti Drug, Inhalants
-Substance abuse

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24
Voting Booth
Have you entered our Health of the Nation survey?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
28% - 9938 votes
72% - 26007 votes