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Glue Sniffing: A Review


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Inhalant abuse is a prevalent and often overlooked form of substance abuse in adolescents and young adults. It causes a euphoric feeling, may become addictive and can be a serious health concern associated with significant morbidity and mortality. Acute effects of inhalants include sudden sniffing death syndrome, asphyxia, and traumatic injuries. Chronic inhalant abuse can damage the brain, heart, lung, kidney, liver, and bone marrow in addition to being an important cause of psychosocial and economic problems. This article is proposed to emphasize on the harmful effects of glue-sniffing, its prevention and management.
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Proceedings of Singapore Healthcare Volume 19 Number 4 2010
Glue Sniffing: A Review
Haresh Tulsidas, MBBS, MRCP (UK)
Department of Internal Medicine, Singapore General Hospital, Singapore
Inhalant abuse is a prevalent and often overlooked form of substance abuse in adolescents and young adults. It
causes a euphoric feeling, may become addictive and can be a serious health concern associated with significant
morbidity and mortality. Acute effects of inhalants include sudden sniffing death syndrome, asphyxia, and
traumatic injuries. Chronic inhalant abuse can damage the brain, heart, lung, kidney, liver, and bone marrow
in addition to being an important cause of psychosocial and economic problems. This article is proposed to
emphasize on the harmful effects of glue-sniffing, its prevention and management.
Key Words: addiction, sniffing, youth,
Glue sniffing, also known as solvent abuse is defined
as the deliberate inhalation of volatile substances
for the purpose of recreational self-intoxication. It
is the most common form of inhalant abuse, which
continues to be a significant problem especially
among the youth. It is appealing to adolescents as
it is relatively inexpensive, legal in some countries,
and readily available. The “high” achieved occurs
rapidly and disappears fairly quickly compared
with other drugs. Thus, a user can sniff and still
be sober at school, place of work or at home,
making detection difficult for teachers, colleagues
or parents.
In the past it was thought to be simply a social
problem among teenagers but there is now
evidence that it can cause sudden death, even in
first time users, and that chronic use may result
in serious organ system dysfunction. There is
also a likelihood of the abuse continuing into
adulthood that can have social, economic and
long-term medical consequences. Glue sniffing is
often a stepping-stone to harder drugs. It should
therefore not be underestimated and appropriate
measures on its prevention and treatment ought to
be addressed.
Inhalant use, which includes glue sniffing, is widely
prevalent. It has been reported that nearly 20 % of
adolescents in the USA have experimented with its
. The mean age of first-time inhalant abusers is
13 years
, with onset occurring in children as young
as 6 to 8 years old. Usage declines by the age of
17 to 19 years though some abusers continue into
adulthood. Moreover it is a precursor to abuse of
other illicit drugs in later years
. A large number
of heroin addicts and IV drug abusers have a past
history of inhalant use
, which is more common in
those from a lower socioeconomic background,
particularly those from chaotic, broken homes and
abusive families
. Other risk factors for inhalant
abuse include those with aggressive behaviour,
low self esteem, positive family history of abuse
or alcoholism, peer pressure, poor academic
achievement, abuse or neglect and those who
have been exposed to violence or assault. Heavy
inhalant abusers, especially females, are more likely
to have had a background of childhood abuse,
whether physical or sexual, than non-abusers or
lighter abusers
In Singapore, the first case of glue sniffing was
reported in 1977 in a 15-year old American boy who
Glue Sning: A Review
Proceedings of Singapore Healthcare Volume 19 Number 4 2010
was found dead in his room with airplane glue, an
adhesive used to attach pieces of a scale model kit
together, in his nostrils. He had high level of toluene
in the blood
. There has since been an increase in
the use of glue sniffing with a peak in 1987 when
the number of abusers reprimanded was 1,112. A
decline in the use of glue- sniffing was noted in the
following decade but unfortunately it is making an
alarming comeback. According to central narcotics
bureau data reported in Straits Times in April 2008,
the number of inhalant abusers caught in 2007 was
644 compared to 403 in 2006 and only 120 in 2005.
Out of the 644 abusers, 70% were students under
the age of 20. 80% were males. The reasons for the
abuse quoted by most of them were peer pressure,
boredom and inquisitiveness. Glue sniffing is a
criminal offence in Singapore and a police case
is therefore mandatory. Inhalant abusers may be
classified as experimenters, intermittent users or
chronic abusers.
Methods of Abuse
Inhalation is usually achieved through:
Sniffing (nasal inhalation) of vapours directly
from an open container or a surface soaked
with the substance;
Huffing (oral inhalation) from a rag or cloth
soaked in a volatile substance that is held over
the mouth or nose; or
Bagging which involves breathing in and out of
a paper or plastic bag filled with a small amount
of a volatile substance.
Concentration of the substance inhaled from
sniffing is lower than that from huffing. Hence
the user typically starts by sniffing and later on
progresses to higher doses to intensify the desired
euphoria by huffing
or bagging, the latter being
the most toxic since the effect may be intensified by
hypoxia and hypercapnia as a result of the exhaled
air being reabsorbed
. Inhalants can be classified
into three groups namely volatile solvents, nitrous
oxide and alkyl nitrites, which are also known as
poppers. Toluene and xylene, found in many types of
glues and solvents, are the most common aromatic
hydrocarbons of abuse. The readily available
consumer products used are glues, cement, paint,
lacquers, gasoline, dry-cleaning fluids, correction
fluids, and butane lighters. Glue, which is easily
available in bicycle shops, is the most commonly
abused substance followed by lacquer and thinner
that can be obtained from hardware stores (Table
1). Inhaled nitrites have been abused in the past
particularly by men, who have sex with men to
intensify sexual experience as they are known to
enhance sexual feelings, penile engorgement, and
anal sphincter relaxation
Clinical Manifestations
Toluene, the main component of volatile glues,
lacquer thinners and aerosol paints is the chemical
responsible for most clinical toxicity. The effects
are either from acute intoxication or from organ
system dysfunction as a result of chronic and
persistent abuse.
Inhalants cause an initial excitatory response
through the release of epinephrine and activation of
the dopamine system, followed by central nervous
system depression mediated by the use of GABA
. Activation of the dopamine system by
toluene has been shown to be the factor causing
the pleasurable effects of glue sniffing. Other
effects of toluene include damage to myelin which
is essential for the proper functioning of the central
and peripheral nervous system. Inhaled chemicals
are rapidly absorbed through the lungs into the
bloodstream and quickly circulated to the brain
and other organs. Toluene is metabolised via the
cytochrome P-450 system to benzoic acid, which
is then conjugated with glycine to form hippuric
. The initial high achieved after inhalation
is of rapid onset and short duration. It manifests
as a sense of euphoria, excitation, dizziness,
disinhibited behaviour and exhilaration similar to
alcohol intoxication, thus resulting in psychological
dependence. Repeated inhalations by the user to
prolong the intoxication will develop in headache,
slurred speech, diplopia, gait abnormality, delusions,
visual hallucinations and disorientation. Continued
Table 1. Commonly used products for abuse.
Liquids Aerosols
Model glue Paints
Gasoline Butane Fuel
Contact cement Cooking sprays
Lacquers Cosmetics
Dry cleaning fluids Toiletries
Proceedings of Singapore Healthcare Volume 19 Number 4 2010
use results in further central nervous system
depression manifested by drowsiness, seizures and
even coma. Behavioural changes and characteristic
odour on breath or clothing are helpful clues to
detect cases. Suspected users may also complain
of cough, stuffy nose, sneezing, flushing, salivation,
nausea, vomiting and photophobia.
Other signs and symptoms of inhalant abuse
include spots or sores in or around the mouth,
injected sclera, nystagmus, irritability or excitability,
anxiety and sleep disturbances. Paint or other stains
on the face, hands, or clothes are other indicators
of abuse. Severe dryness of facial skin and mucus
membranes can also be a feature of repeated,
prolonged use of volatile substances
. Bacterial
infection of the dry and cracked skin may result
in perioral and perinasal pyodermas, sometimes
referred to as “huffer’s rash
. Dependant inhalant
abusers may suffer from a withdrawal syndrome
with non-specific symptoms in the form of craving,
irritability and insomnia.
Diagnosis of inhalant abuse is difficult since there
are no specific laboratory tests to confirm solvent
inhalation. A thorough history and a high index of
suspicion are thus essential. Table 2 shows some
helpful diagnostic features of inhalant abuse.
Clinical Toxicity
Inhalant use is a serious public health concern
especially among the youth and has many adverse
medical consequences with significant morbidity
and mortality. Death due to inhalant abuse can
occur by several mechanisms. Indirect causes are
from aspiration of vomit during coma, asphyxia
due to the sniffing bag being sealed over the nose
and mouth, and accidental trauma due to poor
judgment resulting from the intoxication. Death
may also result directly from vagal inhibition, anoxia,
respiratory depression, and cardiac arrhythmia
“Sudden sniffing death” was first reported by
Bass in 1970
. It is thought to be caused by the
sudden release of catecholamine that can trigger
ventricular fibrillation when the acutely intoxicated
inhalant abuser exercises, is hallucinating or is
suddenly startled. Risk of fatal arrhythmias is
increased by concomitant use of alcohol, cocaine
or any sympathomimetic. Suffocation, aspiration,
and accidental injury accounted for approximately
45% of deaths attributable to inhalant abuse with
sudden sniffing death syndrome accounting for the
remainder as found in a study carried out in Britain
between 1981 and 1985
. In Singapore out of a
total of 19,000 post-mortems performed between
1983–1991, 33 had toluene in their blood; 6.1%
of the deaths were from acute toluene poisoning
and the remainder was associated with falling,
drowning, or jumping. Thus there was a correlation
between the intoxicating effect of toluene and high
incidence of fatal accidents amongst its users
Chronic exposure to inhalant use can produce
significant damage to several organs, including
the brain, heart, lung, kidney, liver, bone marrow
and skeleton. The resultant manifestations are
summarised below.
The central nervous system (CNS) is the most
vulnerable system in the body to the toxic effects
of inhalants. Acutely, it causes CNS depression
Table 2. Helpful diagnostic features of a serious inhalant abuse problem.
A chemical smell on the breath
Traces of paint or oil stains on clothes or body
Rashes or sores around the nose or mouth, redness of the eyes or a hacking cough
Loss of appetite, drowsiness, dazed appearance or slurred speech
Truancy from school
Decline in performance at school
Untidy appearance
Gathering in groups in neglected buildings
Restlessness at night
Strange behaviour, such as being nervous or temperamental
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Proceedings of Singapore Healthcare Volume 19 Number 4 2010
manifested by slurred speech, diplopia,
abnormal gait, disorientation, and visual
hallucinations which are all reversible. Neurons
are particularly prone to the solvent properties
of inhaled compounds because of their high
lipid content
. Encephalopathy characterized
by euphoria, hallucinations, nystagmus,
seizures, and coma
, cerebellar damage
peripheral neuropathy
are well-established
consequences of chronic glue sniffing. Abuse of
N-Hexane, a component of many types of glue,
should always be considered in the differential
diagnosis of a demyelinating polyneuropathy,
which would include chronic inflammatory
cause and HIV related neuropathy
Axonal swelling revealed by sural nerve biopsy
is a feature of glue sniffing neuropathy and this
will help in differentiating it from the above
. Cranial nerve damage manifested by
opsoclonus, anosmia, optic atrophy, tinnitus,
and sensorineural hearing loss has also been
. Other possible consequences of
long term glue sniffing are cognitive dysfunction
and dementia
. These neurologic abnormalities
usually occur 2 or more years of regular abuse
of toluene
which has a severe impact on
central nervous system myelin
. Though
they are reversible, chronic persistent abuse
may cause permanent neurological damage
in some cases
Cardiac arrhythmias are the most common
causes of sudden sniffing death. Ventricular
, sinus bradycardia
heart block induced by hypoxia
are the
recognized mechanisms. Chronic toxicity to
the cardiovascular system includes irreversible
myocardial damage and congestive cardiac
failure due to chronic myocarditis and fibrosis
Myocardial infarction following toluene abuse
has also been reported
A case of dilated cardiomyopathy in a 21 year
old glue sniffer who recovered rapidly and
completely after cessation of toluene abuse has
been described
Acute pulmonary effects namely bronchospasm,
asphyxia and aspiration pneumonitis are
recognized complications of inhalant abuse that
will manifest as cough, wheezing and dyspnoea.
Long term damage to the respiratory system
resulting from chronic glue sniffing includes
panacinar emphysema
and Goodpasture’s
. Pulmonary function tests carried
out in 37 young chronic glue sniffers were
found to have high residual lung volumes when
compared with 20 young control subjects
Renal disorders associated with chronic toluene
abuse include renal tubular acidosis
, urinary
, glomerulonepritis
and Goodpasture’s
. Haematuria and proteinuria with
otherwise normal kidney function may also
be features of chronic abuse
. Electrolyte
and acid/base disturbances which may be
life threatening have also been reported
Hypokalemia is thought to be due to increased
mineralocorticoid secondary to volume
. Acidosis from toluene poisoning
has been attributed to distal renal tubular
acidosis or overproduction of hippuric acid
. Severe hypophosphatemia from
chronic toluene abuse has also been described.
It is thought to be due to either renal phosphate
wasting or internal phosphate re-distribution
Gastrointestinal symptoms of solvent abuse
are nonspecific. Inhalant abusers may develop
nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps
and loss of appetite. Transient hepatic damage
with elevated enzymes can also be a feature
A case of reversible hepatorenal failure in an
adolescent with a history of chronic glue sniffing
has also been described
Long-term inhalant use may cause blood
dyscrasias namely pancytopenia from bone
marrow suppression and haemolysis
Malignancies such as leukemia, lymphoma,
multiple myeloma
and aplastic anaemia
other haematological consequences that have
been reported in chronic inhalant abusers.
Chronic exposure to toluene has also been
shown to affect bone metabolism. It causes bone
demineralisation by inducing bone resorption
and inhibiting bone formation
. Thus chronic
glue sniffers are at increased risk of developing
osteoporotic fractures in later life.
Proceedings of Singapore Healthcare Volume 19 Number 4 2010
Substance abuse during pregnancy poses a
great danger to the foetus as most inhalants
are highly lipophilic and therefore readily cross
the placenta
. Toluene abuse during pregnancy
can cause spontaneous abortion and premature
delivery and is consistently associated with
congenital malformation
including oral
clefts, micrognathia, microcephaly, growth
deficiency, developmental delay
, craniofacial
characteristics as seen in foetal alcohol
and renal tubular acidosis
. A
neonatal withdrawal syndrome has also been
described with chronic inhalant abuse
Social and psychological
In addition to the above medical consequences,
chronic inhalant abuse presents a major
problem to society. It is linked with a number of
psychosocial problems and other risk behaviours.
Inhalant abusers are more likely to suffer from a
serious mental illness than non abusers. These
adolescents often suffer from low self-esteem
and are more prone to have depression and
even suicidal thoughts. They have poor family
relations, academic problems, and are exposed
to substance-using peers and/or parents
Compared to non-users, delinquency rate is
higher among users
who are more prone
to engage in anti-social or criminal activities.
Violent behaviour and weapon carrying have
also been closely associated with substance
. Inhalant abusers have a tendency to
sit with a pen or marker near the nose, constantly
smell clothing sleeves and would hide rags,
clothes, or empty containers of the potentially
abused products in closets and other places.
They have a wider range of cognitive deficits
and personality disorders with more extensive
social disruption
. Female inhalant abusers are
more likely to experience multiple psychiatric
disorders as compared to male inhalant users.
The disorders seen in inhalant abusers are
affective and anxiety disorders, attention-deficit
disorder, and antisocial personality disorders.
Mood and anxiety disorders are more common
in females whereas males are more likely to
suffer from anti-social personality disorders.
Inhalant users who develop social or specific
phobia classically had onset of these disorders
prior to initiation of inhalant use; all other mood
and anxiety disorders usually occurred after the
onset of inhalant use
The most effective way to curtail inhalant abuse
is prevention which is of paramount importance
since these adolescent abusers are at increased
risk of developing extensive medical, psychiatric,
and psychological damage and of misusing
other illicit drugs in later life. The most valuable
prevention approach appears to be education
which should ideally begin before the usual age
of experimentation. Paediatricians are well placed
to educate children, parents and teachers on the
health hazards of glue sniffing. The dangers of
sudden death, burns and serious organ damage
should be reiterated to youngsters especially
those at risk for inhalant abuse. It is extremely
important to try and persuade school children not
to experiment with inhalants.
Any experimentation with inhalants should be
considered as an important risk factor. It would also
be useful to include the prevention of substance
abuse in the curriculum of primary schools. Training
of teachers on substance abuse with emphasis on
its prevention and in detecting cases would be very
valuable. Factors that may deter adolescents to abuse
inhalants include nurturing home environment,
supportive parents, high academic success, positive
self-esteem, good school, religious involvement
and a personal sense of morality. Adolescents who
are vulnerable to abuse of inhalants should be
provided with alternative activities such as leisure
facilities and should be inculcated with traditional
cultural values to promote positive lifestyles thus
diminishing the risk for inhalant abuse and other
destructive behaviours.
Diagnosis of inhalant abuse is difficult and relies
almost entirely on a thorough history and a high
index of suspicion. No specific laboratory tests
confirm solvent inhalation. A chest radiograph
may be useful when aspiration is a concern. CT
head is indicated in those with neurologic deficits.
Laboratory data comprise a complete blood count,
comprehensive metabolic panel, and urinalysis.
A urine and blood toxicology screen should be
considered given the risk of concomitant illicit
drug use. Treatment is generally supportive
because there are no reversal agents for inhalant
intoxication. Acute solvent intoxication should
be managed vigorously. The patient’s airway,
breathing, and circulation should be assessed
and stabilised. The use of sympathomimetics
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Proceedings of Singapore Healthcare Volume 19 Number 4 2010
should be avoided in those developing ventricular
, and beta blockers administered
early to protect the catecholamine-sensitised
heart. Acid base and metabolic disturbances
need to be corrected. Decontamination of skin
and clothing and correction of dehydration are
also important.
Treatment of chronic inhalant abuse and
dependence involves counselling, strict abstinence,
appropriate social support and psychiatric
intervention. Carbamazepine and haloperidol may
be useful drugs in the management of psychosis
caused by inhalants
Glue sniffing certainly poses a significant risk
for considerable morbidity and mortality in
adolescents and young adults who are often
unaware of its health threats. Due to its easy
availability and relative low cost, inhalation
of toluene containing solvents and glues is
widespread and growing. It is therefore important
for physicians to be aware of this dangerous
form of substance abuse and recognise its
effects. Health education, early identification
and intervention are the best ways to impede
inhalant abuse before it causes serious
health consequences.
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... Nevertheless, some abusers persist the addiction up to adultness. Again, other felonious medicines are discovered as forerunner of it in later years (Bennett, 2000) (Tulsidas, 2010) Many heroin addicts and IV drug abusers have a past history of inhalant use, which is more common in those from a lower socioeconomic background, particularly those from chaotic, broken homes and abusive families. Other risk factors for inhalant abuse include those with aggressive behaviour, low self esteem, positive family history of abuse or alcoholism, peer pressure, poor academic achievement, abuse or neglect and those who have been exposed to violence or assault. ...
... Other risk factors for inhalant abuse include those with aggressive behaviour, low self esteem, positive family history of abuse or alcoholism, peer pressure, poor academic achievement, abuse or neglect and those who have been exposed to violence or assault. Heavy inhalant abusers, especially females, are more likely to have had a background of childhood abuse, either physical or sexual, than non-abusers or lighter abusers (Tulsidas, 2010). ...
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Aim: The aim was to determine the prevalence of glue-sniffing among street children. Design: A descriptive cross-sectional study design was adopted. Background: Children are the source of hope and could be the major ailments for the development of society, nation and the world but there are large numbers of children on the street sniff glue and struggling with multiple disease and uncertain future. Methods: A study was conducted in 52 street children to determine the prevalence of glue-sniffers and its impact on street children in Butwal, municipality of Nepal. This study was conducted in 52 street children, 5- point Likert scale and interview schedule was performed with the help of structured and semi-structured questionnaire to collect data. Finally, the collected data are analysed by using descriptive statistical methods such as frequency, percentage and mean. Results: The study findings revealed that a large number of children, that is 40.38% was between the age group of 9-12 years and 92.31% were male. The current prevalence of glue-sniffing among street children is 88.46%. Similarly, 58.7% of respondents had started glue-sniffing 1 year ago. Out of 46 respondents who sniffed glue, 89.13% were unaware of its effect. Nearly, half of the respondents 45.65% had encountered health issues such as headache, chest pain and stomach ache. Conclusions: They have deprived children and denied not only of their rights as children but also of their normal childhood. Without guidance, education and security, they are heading towards an uncertain future. They can have enough potentiality and talent if they are brought into a better environment and might have real hope for the bright future.
The deliberate misuse of volatile substances poses a poorly recognized risk for considerable morbidity and mortality in adolescent populations worldwide. The abuse of inhalants continues to be a significant problem among our country’s youth. While many household and industrial chemicals can be inhaled, glues, paints, and aerosol propellants are among the most commonly abused. Adolescents are often unaware of the health threats posed by inhalation of solvents. Inhalation can result in serious organ system dysfunction or even sudden death. This review discusses the prevalence of inhalant abuse in the United States, summarizes the various types of substances used, highlights the major physiologic effects of inhalants, and briefly discusses associated risk behaviors, prevention and medical management.
While the rate of inhalant abuse continues to rise in this country, it remains one of the least studied or discussed groups of abused substances. This review focuses on the current knowledge of the epidemiology, pharmacology, and sequela of inhalant abuse. We will discuss three groups of inhalants: volatile solvents, nitrous oxide, and nitrites. We will then conclude by proposing means by which inhalant abuse may be prevented and treated.
Forty-seven consecutive admissions of male adolescent delinquents to the secure unit of a regional assessment centre were assessed using 2 self-report questionnaires (Great Ormond Street (GOS) Mood Questionnaire and General Health 28-item (GHQ-28) Questionnaire), and a semi-structured interview schedule covering the following areas–demographic data, family characteristics, educational history, solvent abuse data, criminal history and other drug use. Twenty of the 47 delinquents were regular solvent abusers. The solvent-abusing delinquents differed significantly from those that did not abuse solvents in that more of them were depressed, their age at first arrest was younger and more misused certain drugs. Many from both groups had a history of adverse environmental circumstances (e.g. family, educational, social class) with a tendency for the regular solvent-abusing delinquents to be worse off. The possible interactions and relevance of all of these factors and findings are discussed, and it is concluded that delinquents who regularly abuse solvents might comprise an especially vulnerable group.
Evidence is reviewed of an association between inhalant abuse during pregnancy with adverse health effects on the mother and the newborn. Most evidence comes from case reports in solvent abusers as well, as some studies of occupational exposure to various abused solvents and nitrous oxide. In these case reports, it is not possible to establish a direct teratogenic effect for specific abused chemicals independent of the poor maternal health and prenatal care as well as other risk factors that may have accompanied inhalant abuse lifestyles. Results of animal studies provide more direct evidence for adverse effects of in utero exposure to the widely abused solvents, toluene and trichloroethane (TCE). Proper diagnosis and treatment of inhalant abuse during pregnancy should help minimize harm to the fetus.
An optometrist and a glue sniffer exposed independently to toluene vapors developed cerebellar, pyramidal, and cognitive dysfunction. All deficits cleared completely in the former but persisted in the latter. The findings confirm a previous report of a toluene-induced neurological syndrome that is exclusively central, sparing peripheral nerves.
We describe 3 cases of urinary calculi that developed during the course of long-term solvent abuse. The patients regularly sniffed a lacquer thinner (major component toluene) or a cement (xylene and cyclohexane) for 2 to 6 years before the development of urolithiasis. The occurrence of proteinuria and hematuria was closely related to solvent sniffing in 2 of the 3 patients. Regular, long-term solvent abuse must be included in the causes of urolithiasis, particularly in juveniles and young adults.