Last published: July 30, 2019
What is nitrous oxide?
Nitrous oxide is a colourless gas that is commonly used for sedation and pain relief, but is also used by people to feel intoxicated or high.1
It is commonly used by dentists and medical professionals to sedate patients undergoing minor medical procedures.1 It is also a food additive when used as a propellant for whipped cream, and is used in the automotive industry to enhance engine performance. It is also increasingly being used to treat people withdrawing from alcohol dependence. Nitrous oxide is classified as a dissociative anaesthetic and has been found to produce dissociation of the mind from the body (a sense of floating), distorted perceptions and in rare cases, visual hallucinations.2
How is it used?
The gas is inhaled, typically by discharging nitrous gas cartridges (bulbs or whippets) into another object, such as a balloon, or directly into the mouth.3 Inhaling nitrous oxide produces a rapid rush of euphoria and feeling of floating or excitement for a short period of time.3
Laughing gas, nitro, N2O, NOS, nangs, whippet, hippy crack, buzz bomb, balloons.
Effects of nitrous oxide
There is no safe level of drug use. Use of any drug always carries risk. It’s important to be careful when taking any type of drug.
Nitrous oxide affects everyone differently, based on:
- the amount taken
- the user’s size, weight and health
- whether the person is used to taking it
- whether other drugs are taken around the same time
The following effects may be felt almost immediately and can last for a few minutes: 2,4,5
- numbness of the body
- uncontrolled laughter
- uncoordinated movements
- blurred vision
- dizziness and/or light-headedness
- feeling unusually tired or weak
- sudden death.
If a large amount of nitrous oxide is inhaled it can produce: 2,4,7
- loss of blood pressure
- heart attack.
Inhaling nitrous oxide can be fatal if you don’t get enough oxygen, which is known as hypoxia.2,3,5
Prolonged exposure to nitrous oxide may result in: 2,4,5,6
- memory loss
- vitamin B12 depletion (long-term depletion causes brain and nerve damage)
- ringing or buzzing in the ears
- numbness in the hands or feet
- limb spasms
- potential birth defects (if consumed during pregnancy)
- weakened immune system
- disruption to reproductive systems
- psychological dependence
Mixing with other drugs
There is no current evidence demonstrating that mixing nitrous oxide with other substances increases health risks. However, it is possible that combining the gas with stimulants and other drugs places additional pressure on the heart, increases blood pressure and may disrupt heart rate.5
Mixing nitrous oxide and alcohol can cause:
- feeling heavy or sluggish
- reduced concentration
- loss of body control.9
Health and safety
When inhaling directly from tanks or whippets (bulbs), the gas is intensely cold (-40C degrees) and can cause frostbite to the nose, lips and throat (including vocal cords).5,10 As the gas is also under constant pressure, it can cause ruptures in lung tissue when inhaled directly from these containers. Releasing the nitrous oxide into a balloon helps to warm the gas and normalise the pressure before inhaling.5,8
People can also harm themselves if they use faulty gas dispensers, which may explode. Dispensing several gas canisters consecutively with one cracker (a handheld device used to ‘crack’ a nitrous oxide bulb/whippet) can also cause cold burns to the hands.5
It is possible to reduce the risks associated with using nitrous oxide by not:
- using it alone or in dangerous or isolated places
- putting plastic bags over the head or impeding breathing in any way
- spraying near flammable substances, such as naked flames or cigarettes
- drinking alcohol or taking other drugs
- standing or dancing while inhaling, as the user may pass out.3,5
There are no significant withdrawal symptoms apart from cravings to use more nitrous.1
According to the Australian Trends in Ecstasy and Related Drug Markets 2016 Survey, around one third (36%) of a sample of people who regularly use ecstasy and related drugs reported recent nitrous oxide use in the six months preceding the survey. This is considerably higher than 2015 results (26%). Use was highest in Victoria (62%).10
- Malamed, SF & Clark, MS. (2003). Nitrous oxide-oxygen: a new look at a very old technique. Journal of the California Dental Association, 31(5), 397-404.
- Brands, B, Sproule, E & Marshman, J. (1998). Drugs and Drug Abuse. Toronto: Addiction Research Foundation.
- Papanastasiou, C & Dietze, P. (2015). Just a laughing matter? Nitrous oxide use among a group of regular psychostimulant users in Melbourne, Victoria. Poster. Melbourne: Centre for Population Health, Burnet Institute.
- Re-Solv. (n.d.). Nitrous Oxide.
- Drug Science. (2012). Nitrous Oxide.
- Garland, EL, Howard, MO, & Perron, BE. (2009). Nitrous oxide inhalation among adolescents: Prevalence, correlates, and co-occurrence with volatile solvent inhalation. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 41(4), 337-347.
- UK Home Office. (2014). Guidance on restricting the supply of nitrous oxide for recreational use.
- Zacny, JP, Camarillo, VM, Sadeghi, P, & Black, M. (1998). Effects of ethanol and nitrous oxide, alone and in combination, on mood, psychomotor performance and pain reports in healthy volunteers. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 52(2), 115-123.
- Sindicich, N. & Burns, L. (2016). Finding from the Ecstasy and Related Drugs Reporting System (EDRS).