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Nitrous Oxide

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What Is Nitrous oxide?

Nitrous oxide (N2O) is a colorless, liquefied gas used for several legitimate purposes.

Nitrous oxide blended with oxygen, also called "laughing gas" is most commonly used as an Anesthetic in doctors’, dentists’ and veterinarians’ offices.

Nitrous oxide can be used as a combustion catalyst in auto racing, as an oxidizer in semiconductor manufacturing, in the production of air bags, and as a food processing propellant.

Besides these legitimate purposes, nitrous oxide can also be used to get "high."

Why Do People Abuse Nitrous Oxide?

Nitrous oxide produces a sense of euphoria by depriving the user of oxygen. As the nitrous oxide is inhaled, it replaces the oxygen in the user’s lungs.

Symptoms of use are a brief "high", slurred speech, impaired balance, confused thinking, unresponsiveness to stimuli such as noise and pain, and possible loss of consciousness (CGA, 2001).


Who’s Using Nitrous Oxide?

Inhalant use, in general, is most common among younger adolescents (NIDA, 2001). A study by the University of Virginia reported that nitrous oxide was one of the top five substances abused by adolescent inhalant users (McGarvey, et al. 1999).

How Do Kids Get Nitrous Oxide?

Nitrous oxide is sold at concert venues, parties and raves by Drug dealers who dispense it in individual "hits"--balloons inflated with N2O.

Nitrous oxide whipped cream rechargers, or Whip-Its, can be obtained at some large grocery stores and through restaurant supply companies (CGA, 2001). Whip-Its, also called "poppers," have been purchased from head shops and via the Internet.


What Are the Risks?


Injuries, including broken limbs and head concussions, from falls due to the impaired balance and loss of consciousness associated with nitrous oxide abuse, are not uncommon.

Long-term effects:

Long-term use of nitrous oxide can cause bone marrow suppression, blood cell problems and poisoning of the Central nervous system (Winek et al. 1995).


Nitrous oxide can be addictive. Some studies have shown increased Tolerance among frequent abusers (Gilman, 1986), which may result in riskier methods of inhalation.


Nitrous oxide abusers face a very real potential for death by asphyxiation.

Nitrous oxide deaths usually occur when the abuser is trying to increase the effects of the gas by inhaling it in a confined space such as a closet or a car, by putting a plastic bag over his or her head, or when the abuser is trying to prolong the high by inhaling and holding the gas for several minutes or taking a quick series of inhalations (huffing) without breathing normally in between.

Death can occur very quickly, in only a matter of seconds.


Definitions of Terms Used

Addiction Strong physiological, emotional and/or psychological dependence on a substance such as alcohol or drugs that has progressed beyond voluntary control. For more on addiction see the section Addiction Information in this website. 
Alcohol Refers to ethyl alcohol or ethanol. 
Anesthetic An agent that causes insensitivity to pain and is used for surgeries and other medical procedures. 
Central nervous system The brain and spinal cord. 
Drug Any substance, other than food, that changes the function or structure of the body or mind when ingested. Drugs essentially are poisons. The degree they are taken determines the effect. A small amount acts as a stimulant. A greater amount acts as a sedative. A larger amount acts as a poison and can kill one dead. This is true of any drug. Each has a different amount at which it gives those results. 
Long-term effects The effects seen when a drug is used repeatedly over weeks, months, or years. These effects may outlast drug use. 
Nitrous oxide 

An inhalant, also known as "laughing 
gas."  Nitrous oxide is a weak anesthetic that does not produce 
unconsciousness. Repeated use of "nitrous" can cause the fatty 
tissue in the brain to deteriorate, resulting in severe headaches, 
hallucinations, hand and foot numbness and spasms in arms and legs.

Opioid Any chemical that has opiate-like effects; commonly used to refer to neurochemicals that activate opiate receptors (see Opiate Receptors). 
Tolerance A condition in which higher doses of a drug are required to produce the same effect as during initial use; often leads to physical dependence. 


  • Compressed Gas Association (2001). Nitrous oxide safety and security. [On-line]. Available: Accessed: 06/27/01.
  • Gilman, M.A. (1986). Nitrous oxide—an Opioid addictive agent: Review of the evidence. American Journal of Medicine. 97-102.
  • McGarvey, E.L., Clavet, C.G., Mason W., Wait D. (1999) Adolescent inhalant abuse: Environment of use. American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse. 731-741. (From: Elsevier Science Direct Abstracts.)
  • NIDA (2001). Monitoring the future: National results on adolescent drug use, overview of key findings, 2000. Bethesda, MA: Author.
  • Winek, C.L., Wahba, W.W., Rozin, L. (1995) Accidental death by nitrous oxide inhalation. Forensic Science International. 139-141.

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