A whiff of death: Fatal volatile solvent inhalation abuse

Craig H. Steffee, Gregory J. Davis, Kathleen K. Nicol

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42 Scopus citations


Inhalation abuse of volatile solvents, previously known generically as 'glue sniffing,' is typically pursued by adolescents. A wide range of legal, easily obtained products containing volatile substances are available for abuse. We report two illustrative cases of fatal volatile substance abuse: gasoline sniffing in a 20-year-old man and aerosol propellant gas inhalation (aerosol air freshener) in a 16-year-old girl with underlying reactive airway disease. Although the ratio of deaths to nonfatal inhalation escapades is extremely low, volatile solvent abuse carries the risk of sudden death due to cardiac arrest after a dysrhythmia or vasovagal event, central nervous system respiratory depression, hypoxia and hypercapnia due to the techniques of inhalation, and other mechanisms. Investigation of the patient's substance abuse history, examination of the scene of death, and special toxicologic analyses are critical to identifying volatile substance inhalation abuse as the cause of death because anatomic autopsy findings will typically be nonspecific. Above all, physicians must suspect the diagnosis of volatile substance inhalation abuse, especially in any case of sudden death involving an otherwise healthy young person.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)879-884
Number of pages6
JournalSouthern Medical Journal
Issue number9
StatePublished - 1996

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine (all)


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