What is nitrous oxide?
Nitrous oxide is a gas with several legitimate uses, but when inhaled it can make people feel euphoric and relaxed. This happy feeling has led to it being nicknamed ‘laughing gas’. Some people also experience hallucinations.
However, there is a risk of death as a lack of oxygen can occur when using nitrous oxide. This risk is likely to be greater if the gas is consumed in an enclosed space or if a substantial amount is rapidly used.
There are three main legitimate uses of nitrous oxide:
- To numb pain during medical procedures such as dental work.
- In engines to increase their power output.
- In catering, in whipped cream aerosol cans to prevent the cream going ‘bad’and in food packaging to prevent the food from rotting.
Nitrous oxide is a colourless gas. Some people say that it has a slightly sweet smell and taste.
It is normally bought in pressured canisters, varying in size and depending on what it will be used for. The gas is commonly transferred to a container, e.g. a balloon, from which the gas is inhaled.
Nitrous oxide is most commonly inhaled through the mouth. Because nitrous oxide is a pressurised gas in the canister, there is a risk of harming yourself if you inhale nitrous oxide straight from the canister. This method can lead to sudden death due to a lack of oxygen and is one reason why nitrous oxide is sold to people in balloons.
What are the effects of nitrous oxide?
Nitrous oxide is depressant-type drug, which means it slows down your brain and your body’s responses.
The effects of nitrous oxide vary depending on how much has been inhaled but they include:
• Feelings of euphoria, relaxation and calmness.
• Dizziness, difficulty in thinking straight and fits of giggles/laughter.
• Sound distortions or even hallucinations.
• In some people, a headache can be an unwanted immediate effect.
What are the risks of nitrous oxide?
Nitrous oxide can cause dizziness or affect your judgement, which might make you act carelessly or dangerously and put you at risk of hurting yourself, particularly in an unsafe environment.
Other risks include:
• Unconsciousness or death from lack of oxygen. This occurs when the available oxygen for breathing is effectively pushed out by the nitrous oxide. The risk is greater if the gas is consumed in an enclosed space or if a plastic bag is used that covers both nose and mouth.
- Heavy regular use of nitrous oxide can lead to deficiency of vitamin B12 and to a form of anaemia. The severe B12 deficiency can lead to serious nerve damage in some cases, which causes tingling and numbness n the fingers and toes and other extremities, and even difficulties with walking and pains in affected areas. Regular use may also depress formation of white blood cells.
- It can be hard to judge the amount to use safely. If you have too much you can end up fainting, having an accident or much worse.
- Severe vitamin B deficiency can develop with heavy, regular use of nitrous oxide. This can cause serious nerve damage, which leads to tingling and numbness in the fingers, toes and other extremities, and even difficulties with walking and tpains in the affected areas.
Nitrous oxide and alcohol
Mixing nitrous oxide with alcohol is especially dangerous as it can increase the risks associated with both substances and can lead to an increased risk of accidents or death.
Sulphur dioxide, a poisonous gas, is added to the nitrous oxide used in engines to discourage people from using it to get ‘high’.
Can you get addicted to nitrous oxide?
It may be possible to become psychologically dependent on nitrous oxide, meaning that users develop an increased desire to keep using it despite any harms, but the evidence on this is limited. In anecdotal reports, some people have reported developing cravings or feelings that they want to continue using nitrous oxide.
Is nitrous oxide illegal?
Nitrous oxide is not illegal to possess, but this doesn’t mean that it is safe to use. It is illegal, in England and Wales, for anyone to sell nitrous oxide to people under-18, if they think they’re likely to be inhaling the nitrous oxide.
Did you know?
Like drinking and driving, driving while under the influence of drugs is illegal – with some drugs you can still be unfit to drive the day after using. You can get a heavy fine, be disqualified from driving or even go to prison.