In January 2020, The HSE warned young people through the mainstream media of the risks associated with using Nitrous Oxide 'laughing gas' due to an increase in use within communities and at music festivals in 2019.
Soon to be published data from the HSE and Trinity College Dublin in relation to drug trends last summer at music festivals indicates that over a quarter of respondents to their survey had used Nitrous Oxide.
Nitrous Oxide is a depressant/dissociative/inhalant type drug and is also know as Laughing Gas, Whippets (cartridges of nitrous oxide), Whippit, Chargers, Bulbs, NoS, N2O, balloons, 'hippie crack'
Nitrous Oxide is a gas that has a number of industrial uses and is used clinically as an anaesthetic gas for pain-relieving properties when mixed with air.
It is a colourless gas that some say is slightly sweet smelling and tasting. It can be found in different forms such as whipped cream chargers ‘whippets’ which are small silver cartridges. It can also come as crackers with balloons attached or as balloons that have been filled with the gas.
It is inhaled, sometimes referred to as ‘nagging’
There are always risks with drugs, it is safer not to use.
It is important to note that each person will react differently to a substance. Effects can be based on a number of factors depending on; how much is taken and the dose which sometimes can be unknown, personal factors such as the persons seize and mental health, if the person has consumed the substance before and if other drugs, alcohol or prescription medication are used at the same time.
Below are common effects that a person may feel:
- Effects start almost immediately peaking at about 10-30 seconds after use, but the effects are short lived meaning they don't last long
- It can cause 'dissociative effects'
- People can feel euphoric, giddy and want to giggle or laugh
- Some feel relaxation, calm and wellbeing
- Some people may get a head ache, dizziness or blurred vision
- Loss of balance, feeling unsteady or disorientation
- Irritated respiratory tract - the part of the body that helps a person breath
- Tight chest after heavy use or for those with conditions such as asthma
- People could feel nausea
- Short lived paranoia
- Effects on sound or visuals – visual patterning or hallucination where you see, hear or feel things that are not there
- It can also cause a change in blood pressure for some people or sudden death due to a lack of oxygen
Long term effects
- Changes in mood and depression
- Frequent use can lead to red blood cell problems which could result in anaemia
- There is a risk of vitamin D deficiency
- Heavy and regular use can cause Vitamin B 12 deficiency which could lead to nerve damage
Other known risks
- The quality and purity of the nitrous oxide could vary depending on the source
- There is a risk that people could confuse nitrous oxide with more toxic or potent gases or volatile substances
- People with heart, blood pressure or mental health concerns could be at greater risk. Nitrous Oxide can cause a drop in oxygen levels which could increase heart rate
- Inhaling directly from a canister can damage the throat and lungs
- People risk falling or accidents after use
- Nitrous Oxide can displace the air in the lungs and can temporarily preventing oxygen from entering the bloodstream
- People risk being deprived of oxygen if too much nitrous oxide is inhaled or if a person uses continuously without taking breaths
- People have died from suffocation or lack of oxygen
- Using with other drugs increases the risks, including using with alcohol or prescription medication. It is possible that nitrous oxide ingested at the same time as stimulants has a greater effect on blood pressure and heart rate
Nitrous oxide is could be used in a compulsive way. However, there are no significant withdrawal symptoms known at present other than the desire to use more nitrous oxide.
Currently there are no reports of nitrous oxide dependence in the literature. There is anecdotal evidence of psychological dependence.
We continue to monitor this substance and the known risks.
Educating young people
Parents play an important role in educating young people of the risks asscociated with drug and alcohol use. To help parents discuss substance use, the HSE produced an booklet to guide the conversation. Download HSE Parents Guide here.Get the facts and reduce the harms.
HSE warning to young people in January 2020
For harm reduction information download Drug Watch information sheet Nitrous Oxide
Professionals and Clinicans please see the Neptune Clinical Guidelines
Authors: HSE National Social Inclusion Office.
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