Nitrous oxide


Nitrous oxide in pressurised silver containers and balloons

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.

As with all drugs, it is better not to use nitrous oxide alone. Having people you trust and who have knowledge of first aid around is always a good thing.

See also:

Nitrous oxide: No laughing matter? HoC, 2020
This briefing explains what nitrous oxide is and how its use as a recreational drug is currently policed | House of Commons library, UK

DrugScience briefing on tackling the misuse of Nitrous Oxide, 2020

DrugWise’s printable factsheet on nitrous oxide (PDF)

DrugWatch Information Sheet: Nitrous Oxide  (PDF)