Nitrous Oxide Laughing Gas
What is Nitrous Oxide?
Nitrous Oxide is a gas that when inhaled causes quick and short lasting effects. It can cause an instant ‘rush’ for people who consume. When used in extra risky ways, used in large doses or used frequently over time it can cause harms to health.
It has a number of industrial uses and is used clinically. When mixed with air (50/50 gas and air) it is used as an anaesthetic gas for pain-relief in dentistry and child birth.
Nitrous Oxide is often categorised as a ‘depressant’, ‘dissociative’ or ‘inhalant’ type drug because of its effects and how it is inhaled. A depressant drug is one that slows the body down. A dissociative drug has effects which causes disconnect or detachment from oneself or reality.
It is known by people who use it as ‘Laughing Gas’, ‘Whippets’, ‘Chargers’ ‘N20’, ‘Nos’ and ‘Balloons’. Media reports have also termed this substance as ‘Hippy Crack’.It may be commonly confused with CO2 which comes in similar silver canisters used to inflate bike tyres. Because they are both gases used to fill balloons, Nitrous Oxide could also be confused with helium. The two gases are not related.
It is a colourless gas that some say is slightly sweet smelling and tasting. It can be found in different forms such as in whipped cream chargers ‘whippets’ which are small silver cartridges. It can also come as crackers with balloons attached or in large canisters which are different colours that are used to fill balloons.
How is it taken?
It is inhaled from a balloon which has been filled with the gas, sometimes referred to as ‘nagging’.
The gas needs to be discharged from the canister (large and small) to another object such as a balloon.
To release the gas from ‘whippets’ canisters, they need to be fitted into a whipped cream canister or an object known as a ‘cracker’. Larger Nitrous Oxide containers are also used to release gas directly into a balloon.
Why do people use Nitrous Oxide?
People may choose to use this substance for its quick euphoric effects.
What are the effects?
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, including Nitrous Oxide. 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 mental health, if the person has consumed the substance before and if other drugs, alcohol or prescription medication are used at the same time and the setting it is used in.
Effects start almost immediately peaking at about 10-30 seconds after use, but the effects are short lived meaning they don't last long.
Effects can include:
- ‘Dissociative effects' change in senses, perception and feelings. Feeling detached from yourself and surroundings.
- People can feel euphoric, giddy and want to giggle or laugh
- Some people feel relaxation, floating, calm and a sense of wellbeing
- Time distortion – losing track of time
- Effects on sound or visuals – visual patterning or hallucination
Unwanted effects can include:
- 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
- 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
- Heavy and regular use can cause Vitamin B 12 deficiency which could lead to nerve damage
What are the risks?
Further research is needed in relation to the short and long term risks. We know that risks are increased based on the below factors:
- How it is taken
- How much is taken
- How often it is taken
Taking Nitrous Oxide directly from the canister without a balloon can increase harms
It is dangerous to inhale Nitrous Oxide directly from a canister. Inhaling directly from a canister can cause frost bite to the mouth and nose as well as cause damage the throat and lungs which can be risky. Gas within the canisters is extremely cold and needs to be warmed before inhaling.
Some people may be at greater risk to unwanted effects and becoming unwell
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.
People risk falling or accidents after use, risks are increased if used in roadways or water.
Nitrous Oxide related litter is a concern in some areas.
Mixing drugs increases risk
Using Nitrous Oxide with other drugs increases the risks, including using with alcohol or prescription medication. It is possible that Nitrous Oxide taken at the same time as stimulants has a greater effect on blood pressure and heart rate.
Long term risks to health
Long terms and heavy use is associated with causing vitamin B12 deficiency. Vitamin B12 deficiency can cause nerve damage, pain/tingling in toes and fingers and changes to skin pigment.
Suffocation or lack of air
Suffocation can happen when taking Nitrous Oxide. People risk being deprived of oxygen if too much nitrous oxide is inhaled or if a person uses continuously without taking breaths. Internationally there are some reports of people experiencing suffocation or lack of oxygen.
Quality of products
As with all products, the quality and purity could vary depending on the source. There is concern that people could confuse nitrous oxide with other gases or be sold poor quality products which could cause harm to health.
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 a booklet to help guide the conversation.
Harm Reduction Information
Get harm reduction for people who use Nitrous Oxide here
HSE warning to young people in January 2020
- For further harm reduction information download Drug Watch information sheet Nitrous Oxide
- Professionals and Clinicans please see the Neptune Clinical Guidelines
- Ballymun Local Drug and Alcohol Task Force Nitrous Oxide Webinar