Nitrous oxide facts
Nitrous oxide is a colourless gas that is commonly used for sedation and pain relief, but is also used by people to feel intoxicated or 'high'.1
It is commonly used by dentists and medical professionals to sedate patients undergoing minor medical procedures.1 It is also a food additive when used as a propellant for whipped cream, and is used in the automotive industry to enhance engine performance. It is also increasingly being used to treat people withdrawing from alcohol dependence. Nitrous oxide is classified as a 'dissociative anaesthetic' and has been found to produce dissociation of the mind from the body (a sense of floating), distorted perceptions and in rare cases, visual hallucinations.2
How is it used?
The gas is inhaled, typically by discharging nitrous gas cartridges (bulbs or whippets) into another object, such as a balloon, or directly into the mouth.3 Inhaling nitrous oxide produces a rapid rush of euphoria and feeling of 'floating' or excitement for a short period of time.3
Laughing gas, nitro, N2O, NOS, nangs, whippet, hippy crack, buzz bomb, balloons.
There is no safe level of drug use. Use of any drug always carries risk. It's important to be careful when taking any type of drug.
Nitrous oxide affects everyone differently, based on:
Mixing with other drugs
There is no current evidence demonstrating that mixing nitrous oxide with other substances increases health risks. However, it is possible that combining the gas with stimulants and other drugs places additional pressure on the heart, increases blood pressure and may disrupt heart rate.5
Mixing nitrous oxide and alcohol can cause:
Health and safety
When inhaling directly from tanks or whippets (bulbs), the gas is intensely cold (-40 degrees) and can cause frostbite to the nose, lips and throat (including vocal cords).5,10 As the gas is also under constant pressure, it can cause ruptures in lung tissue when inhaled directly from these containers. Releasing the nitrous oxide into a balloon helps to warm the gas and normalise the pressure before inhaling.5,8
People can also harm themselves if they use faulty gas dispensers, which may explode. Dispensing several gas canisters consecutively with one cracker (a handheld device used to 'crack' a nitrous oxide bulb/whippet) can also cause cold burns to the hands.5
It is possible to reduce the risks associated with misusing nitrous oxide by not:
There are no significant withdrawal symptoms apart from cravings to use more nitrous.1
Reducing the risks
1. Malamed, SF & Clark, MS. (2003). Nitrous oxide-oxygen: a new look at a very old technique. Journal of the California Dental Association, 31(5), 397-404.
2. Brands, B, Sproule, E & Marshman, J. (1998). Drugs and Drug Abuse. Toronto: Addiction Research Foundation.
3. Papanastasiou, C & Dietze, P. (2015). Just a laughing matter? Nitrous oxide use among a group of regular psychostimulant users in Melbourne, Victoria. Poster. Melbourne: Centre for Population Health, Burnet Institute.
4. Re-Solv. (n.d.). Nitrous Oxide.
5. Drug Science. (2012). Nitrous Oxide.
6. Garland, EL, Howard, MO, & Perron, BE. (2009). Nitrous oxide inhalation among adolescents: Prevalence, correlates, and co-occurrence with volatile solvent inhalation. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 41(4), 337-347.
7. UK Home Office. (2014). Guidance on restricting the supply of nitrous oxide for recreational use.
8. Drugs-Forum. (2016). Nitrous Oxide.
9. Zacny, JP, Camarillo, VM, Sadeghi, P, & Black, M. (1998). Effects of ethanol and nitrous oxide, alone and in combination, on mood, psychomotor performance and pain reports in healthy volunteers. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 52(2), 115-123.
Last updated: 24 May 2016