Laughing gas, balloons, chargers, ‘hippy crack’, Nos
Nitrous oxide is a colourless gas with a range of uses both medical and non-medical, for example it’s used as an anaesthetic agent in dental, medical and veterinary settings, and also in rocketry and in vehicle racing. It is also used in the catering industry and is often found in silver, pressurised whipped cream chargers.
These whipped cream chargers, or ‘whippets’, can fill one balloon, which the gas is then inhaled from. A balloon may be passed around a group, with each person taking a gulp. In the last year, large canisters have also been for sale online that can fill up to 80 balloons.
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.
According to the Office of National Statistics article Drug misuse in England and Wales: year ending June 2022, in the last year 1.3% of adults aged 16 to 59 years and 3.9% of adults aged 16 to 24 years had used nitrous oxide, this is equivalent to around 444,000 and 230,000 individuals, respectively. Which was around half as many as reported use in the year ending March 2020. The report mentions the decrease may have been a result of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and government restrictions on social contact.
As of November 8th 2023, Nitrous Oxide is controlled as a Class C drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and placed in Schedule 5 of the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001. See the Government announcement here.
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).
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.
The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) has provided advice on the scheduling of nitrous oxide.
Response to the March 2023 report on nitrous oxide by the ACMD by Rt Hon Chris Philp MP, Minister of State for Crime, Policing and Fire. The response states that the Government has decided to bring forward legislation to control nitrous oxide under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 as a Class C drug.
2023 report from the ACMD (Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs) providing an assessment of the health and social harms of nitrous oxide | ACMD, UK
The increase of recreational use of nitrous oxide in Europe | EU drugs agency (EMCDDA)
This briefing explains what nitrous oxide is and how its use as a recreational drug is currently policed | House of Commons library, UK
New guidelines for the diagnosis and treatment of spinal cord damage caused by nitrous oxide abuse have been adopted following concerns of increased use among young people in the UK.
Updated August 2023