Surely at some point you’ve spotted small bullet-like metallic canisters littered around the street. If you’re wondering what they are, you may be surprised to know they’re nitrous oxide, better known as laughing gas. Nitrous oxide is currently legal to possess in Ireland, but not legal to sell for human consumption. For some time now, there has been an ongoing debate regarding its status. Some people claim that its relatively harmless, while others warn of the risks. While not as lethal as other substances, there are dangers to nitrous oxide that you may not be aware of. This includes both mental and physical effects, and the risks when combining it with other drugs.
Although most people are familiar with its use in medical procedures such as dentistry, surgery, or childbirth, less people are aware that it is also a highly popular recreational drug. For example, according to the Global Drug Survey, nitrous oxide is the 4th most commonly used drug in the UK, and the 2nd most common among young adults.
What is Nitrous Oxide?
The main uses of nitrous oxide include medical applications as an anaesthetic, a booster for engines, and a propellant in aerosol whipped creme and cooking sprays. It has also been used as a recreational drug since the 1800s, though not widely. However, it’s popularity has been growing only the last couple of decades.
Nitrous oxide is said to have a slightly sweet or metallic smell and taste. On the street, it is also known as N2O, nitrous, sweet air, hippie crack, whippit, nos, and several other names.
What Effects Does Nitrous Oxide Produce?
Nitrous oxide is a dissociative anaesthetic which slows down the body functions. It’s sought-after effects are mainly euphoria, mild hallucinations, and intoxication. It acts on GABA and opiate receptors, thus mimicking the effects of alcohol, benzodiazepines, and opiate drugs. Some of the effects, however, are simply a result of oxygen deprivation. While using laughing gas, people may also experience:
Fits of laughter
Uncontrollable muscle movements
Less pleasant side effects include:
Tight feeling in chest
Loss of consciousness
Elevated heart rate
How is Nitrous Oxide Taken?
Nitrous oxide is an inhalant. Usually, one would fill up a balloon with the gas from a canister, then take breaths from the balloon. Although some people might try to inhale the gas from the canister directly, this can cause frostbite and other injuries, so it is not advised.
If a person has a full-sized medical canister of laughing gas, they might breathe it in via a face mask, or fill up a plastic bag with the gas and wrap it around their head. One can also empty a large container into a small room or enclosed space such as a car, if its not well-ventilated, and feel the effects.
Dangers of Nitrous Oxide Use
The number of hospitalisations and deaths associated with nitrous oxide have always been relatively low compared to more serious drugs. However, that number has been slowly rising in the past few years. This could be because the drug is growing in popularity, but people are not fully aware of the risks involved.
There are many dangers associated with laughing gas use ranging from short-term impairment to permanent brain damage. If used rarely in small amounts, the overall risk level is quite low, but with excessive or long-term use, there are serious consequences.
Nitrous oxide creates a feeling of intoxication, so a person’s mental performance and motor skills are significantly impaired. Not only can this lead to accidental injury, but it can also cause minor brain damage. However, damage from a one-time or short-term use is easily reversed once the person stops using.
Prolonged exposure to nitrous oxide or chronic use, on the other hand, can cause irreversible brain damage. Laughing gas is quite neurotoxic and can easily result in brain cell death and nerve damage.
Ongoing nitrous oxide abuse can deplete the body’s B-12 levels. This commonly presents itself as numbness, tingling, or sudden pain – especially in the arms and legs. If someone is drinking alcohol in excess, it is possible that they are already deficient. The good news is that this can be treated with B-12 supplements.
Chronic nitrous oxide inhalation can also disrupt the immune system. And perhaps most worryingly, repeated use during pregnancy can result in birth defects or affect the baby’s mental development.
Hypoxia means low blood oxygen. Essentially, this means whole-body suffocation. If a person inhales too much nitrous oxide, hypoxia can cause low blood pressure, loss of consciousness, or even a heart attack.
Unless the nitrous oxide is in a canister for a medical application, it’s likely that it will not be mixed with oxygen, which can increase the risk of hypoxia.
Although the effects of nitrous oxide are quite short-lived, even a few minutes are enough for a person to fall or have an accident. If a person inhales too much, they can easily pass out, and in some cases suffocate.
A lot of accidental injuries or deaths associated with nitrous oxide are often tied to improper use – such as inhaling the gas straight from the canister, or suffocating from the plastic bag they place over their head.
Another common source of accidental poisoning or death is not directly nitrous oxide related. If the gas is not made for medical purposes, it may be mixed with other gases, which are truly toxic. In addition, there have been reports where people have bought what appeared to be nitrous oxide, only to later discover it was something else.
Because of all the potential risks, including that of death, it is important to call an ambulance if a person loses consciousness. Oxygen deprivation can cause serious damage to the body and brain so if something is clearly wrong, you should act as quickly as possible.
Combining Nitrous Oxide with Other Drugs
Mixing other drugs with laughing gas is quite common, but can be dangerous. Certain substances, such as cannabis, ketamine, LSD, and magic mushrooms intensify the dissociative effects of nitrous oxide.
Because alcohol and benzodiazepines both act on GABA like nitrous oxide, mixing either one with the inhalant can worsen side effects and may even be lethal. It is a similar case with opiates.
Is Nitrous Oxide Addictive?
While nitrous oxide isn’t considered addictive, people can become psychologically addicted to it. Some heavy users have reported cravings and even withdrawal symptoms. Symptoms of addiction are more likely to develop if a person combines nitrous oxide with other substances.
If you feel that you are developing a dependency on nitrous oxide or other substances, you should speak to someone because of the risk of addiction. A GP, counsellor, or addiction centre can all provide you with guidance and resources.
It is rare for someone to attend rehab over nitrous oxide alone. However, people who abuse one drug may be abusing other ones as well. If you’re concerned about your well-being or about someone else, you can contact Smarmore Castle Private Clinic for a consultation at +353 41 214 5111.
Last updated & clinically assessed 30 March, 2022