Nitrous oxide

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Nitrous oxide in pressurised silver containers and balloons

Laughing gas, balloons, chargers, ‘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.

Prevalence

According to the Office of National Statistics article Drug misuse in England and Wales: year ending March 2020, in the last year, 2.4% of adults aged 16 to 59 years and 8.7% of 16 to 24-year-olds had used nitrous oxide (equivalent to around 796,000 and 549,000 individuals respectively). This made it the second most prevalent drug among young adults aged 16 to 24 years (after cannabis) and the third most prevalent for adults aged 16 to 59 years (after cannabis and powder cocaine).   

The law

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

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.

In England and Wales between 2001 and 2020, nitrous oxide was the third most mentioned volatile substance on death certificates (after butane and propane), with 56 deaths registered between 2001 and 2020, and 45 of those having been registered since 2010 (Deaths related to volatile substances, helium and nitrogen in England and Wales: 2001 to 2020 registrations).

Harm reduction

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

Deaths related to volatile substances, helium and nitrogen in England and Wales: 2001 to 2020 registrations

Updated March 2022