Nitrous oxide is a gas that has a wide variety of uses in the United States. When it’s inhaled, it can be a significantly powerful psychoactive drug. However, this chemical drug is so common in American products; it might be in your home right now. Nitrous oxide is commonly used in food production and other items, especially foamy substances that come out of cans.
When something like whipped cream is sprayed, the releasing gas causes the liquid cream to foam up, giving it that fluffy whipped cream texture. However, most of the gas escapes when you release it from the can. The trace amounts that are left in the bubbles and foam aren’t enough to cause psychoactive effects.
But that doesn’t stop some people that are curious about a nitrous oxide high.
Nitrous oxide, along with other gases and chemicals, is sometimes used as recreational drugs, especially when it comes to young, curious would-be drug users. Small canisters of the nitrous oxide, called whippets, are also sold illegally. Inhaling compressed gases directly from containers is dangerous, so intrepid users fill balloons with the gas and then inhale it.
However, inhaling nitrous oxide from balloons comes with its own set of serious medical risks.
Nitrous oxide is a gaseous chemical that’s used for a variety of purposes from rocket motors to medicine. When it’s inhaled, it acts as a psychoactive drug with sedative, psychedelic, analgesic, and dissociative effects. It’s also commonly referred to as laughing gas because it causes novelty enhancement, which is when the user finds things amusing, causing laughter.
It has been used for dentistry and other minor surgeries since the 1840s because it offers both pain relief and anesthetic effects. However, it’s a weak anesthetic, so it’s often used alongside other chemicals. In dentistry, the weakness of the gases’ sedative properties allows the patient to stay alert and conscious so that they can respond to the dentist’s instructions.
Nitrous oxide is also used in food additives, specifically in food that comes in aerosol cans such as whipped cream. Because it’s a potent psychoactive drug that’s readily available in food products, nitrous oxide is often used as a recreational drug, especially among teens.
The chemical’s availability makes it a popular first step into recreational drug use for older children and teenagers. When inhaled, it can cause euphoria, anxiety relief, heightened mood, sedation, a dream-like state, and of course, laughter. However, it can also cause adverse side effects like amnesia, dizziness, headache, and nausea.
The drug is used as a medication because responsible, short-term use is safer than many other inhalants. It doesn’t damage the respiratory system, it allows patients to maintain a normal heart rhythm, and it offers mild pain relief and sedation. However, long-term use can be potentially dangerous.
Taking nitrous oxide comes with a few dangers; some that can be avoided and others that are inherent to this type of drug. It’s important to note that inhalants can be dangerous at any dose and many can cause nerve and organ damage that’s irreversible.
People use a wide variety of chemical inhalants, solvents, and aerosols that offer brief psychoactive effects but come with life-threatening risks. Inhalants also cause injuries when they are taken while in a standing position or when you are up and walking around. Inhalants can cause a brief period of lightheadedness that can even cause faint. When you take it while standing, you can fall, potentially causing serious injuries.
Some, like butane and nitrous oxide, can even cause a medical phenomenon called sudden sniffing death syndrome. This is caused when you use the drug directly from the pressurized container, and it is sprayed into the mouth. When a pressurized container is sprayed, it comes out cold. Extremely cold. It can reach negative 20 degrees Celsius (negative 4 degrees Fahrenheit) when it first exits the canister. When it hits your throat, it can trigger muscle spasms in your throat that block your airways, leading to asphyxiation.
Inhalants can also be dangerous when you take them while using a mask that covers your nose and mouth, or even when you use them in a small enclosed space. Even medically administered nitrous oxide leaves your mouth uncovered. Covering your nose and mouth when you inhale nitrous oxide can cause oxygen deprivation, which can lead to oxygen deprivation and brain damage.
For that reason, the balloon is actually one method that can circumvent a few of the most dangerous aspects of using a gas as a recreational substance. Filling the balloon allows the gas to warm to a normal temperature before you inhale it, but what about the chemical itself? Can it be dangerous on its own? It’s used for medical purposes, so it must be safe to consume right?
Even though it’s used in medicine, nitrous oxide can be harmful and even toxic.
Nitrous oxide can cause mental impairment that can affect your cognitive ability and manual dexterity. The effects are usually temporary, but long-term exposure to the chemical can have more damaging effects on the brain. In rat studies, nitrous oxide has been shown to cause neurotoxicity, which means it damages the brain. Prolonged exposure can cause a medical condition called Olney’s lesions, which can damage or kill neurons.
Regular use of the drug can also cause a vitamin B12 deficiency. The gas lowers the vitamin’s levels in the body, which can increase its neurotoxic risks. If your B12 levels are lowered, you’ll feel fatigued, you’ll have trouble walking and balancing, and you may experience depression, poor memory, and headaches. Deficiency can result in irreversible damage to the nervous system.
Nitrous oxide can be considered mildly addictive, and it can encourage repeated abuse. As a recreational drug nitrous oxide can cause a sense of euphoria, which can have a profound effect on your brain’s reward center. Addiction is a disease that affects the brain’s reward center, which is designed to pick up on life-sustaining activities and encourage them.
When you climb into a warm bed after a long day or eat a satisfying meal when you’re hungry, you feel good. Your body releases “feel-good chemicals” like endorphins, serotonin, norepinephrine, and others. Your reward center picks up on these chemicals and associates them with things that are good for you. In response, it learns to encourage that activity in the future.
Some psychoactive chemicals cause an intense release of these feel-good chemicals, which tricks the brain into thinking that using the drug is a life-sustaining activity. Other drugs like cocaine and opioids cause a more intense reward system response than nitrous oxide.
However, some studies suggest that nitrous oxide may interact with opioid receptors as a partial agonist, which means they may mildly activate the same receptors that opioids do.
Harris, D., & Mirza, Z. (2005, September 01). Butane encephalopathy. from https://emj.bmj.com/content/22/9/676
Olney, J. W. (2003, November 07). Prolonged exposure to inhalational anesthetic nitrous oxide kills neurons in adult rat brain. from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0306452203006304
Olney, J., & Labruyere, J. (1989, June 16). Pathological changes induced in cerebrocortical neurons by phencyclidine and related drugs. from http://science.sciencemag.org/content/244/4910/1360