Nitrous oxide

Laughing gas, ‘hippy crack, Nos

Nitrous oxide is a colourless gas used by dentists as a sedative and anaesthetic agent. It is also used in the catering industry and is often found in silver, pressurised whipped cream chargers.

This is a depressant drug, which slows down the body. When it is inhaled it can make people feel happy, relaxed and giggly, hence the name ‘laughing gas’. It can also lead to mild euphoria, feeling light-headed or dizzy and hallucinations. Some people experience headaches and/or nausea while using.

The gas is usually inhaled from a balloon that has been inflated using a whipped cream charger canister. A balloon may be passed around a group, with each person taking a gulp.

The law

Ever since the Psychoactive Substances Act came into effect on 26 May 2016 it has been illegal to supply or import nitrous oxide for human consumption.

Risks and harm reduction

Inhaling nitrous oxide can result in a lack of oxygen to the brain. This can result in a person falling unconscious and even dying through suffocation or heart problems. This risk is likely to be greater if the gas is consumed in an enclosed space or if a lot is used at the same time.

If inhaling from a balloon, only take a small breath and make sure you are in a well-ventilated area.

Regular or heavy use of nitrous oxide has been linked to a deficiency in vitamin B12. This can lead to nerve damage which causes pain and tingling in the toes and fingers. Studies have also linked heavy use of the gas to some forms of anaemia.

Since nitrous oxide can affect coordination, it’s very important not to use it in potentially dangerous places where falls could cause injury or death. It is important not to drive or operate machinery.

It is best not to drink alcohol while using nitrous oxide – both these drugs are depressants and using them together increases the risk of ill effects and accidents.

Immediate effects 

The effects may start to be felt immediately and can last from 2 – 3 minutes; some effects may last up to 30 – 40 minutes.

Physical effects may include:

  • initial “rush” or “high”
  • euphoria
  • giggling and laughing
  • numbness of the body
  • sedation
  • giddiness
  • uncontrolled laughter
  • sound distortions
  • blurred vision
  • confusion
  • dizziness and/or light-headedness
  • sweating
  • feeling unusually tired or weak
  • sudden death

If a large amount of nitrous oxide is inhaled it can produce:

  • loss of blood pressure
  • fainting
  • heart attack
  • inhaling nitrous oxide can be fatal if you don’t get enough oxygen, which is known as hypoxia.

Effects of prolonged use

  • memory loss
  • vitamin B12 depletion (long-term depletion causes brain and nerve damage)
  • anaemia
  • incontinence
  • numbness in the hands or feet
  • limb spasms
  • potential birth defects (if consumed during pregnancy)
  • weakened immune system
  • disruption to reproductive systems

Having the knowledge of first aid is always a good thing as it saves lives.

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