Nitrous oxide, ‘laughing gas’ or ‘noz’

Nitrous oxide is a gas used medically as an anaesthetic. It’s also used in catering as the propellant in whipped cream chargers. Some people use it as a recreational drug, usually inhaled from a balloon to get high.

Where do people find nitrous oxide?

When sold for recreational purposes, nitrous oxide or ‘laughing gas’ tends to come in small metal 8g canisters (‘whippits’). The gas is then decanted into a balloon from which it is inhaled. In recent years much larger canisters (580g+) have been on the market. These larger canisters do not have any known legitimate use.

What are the effects of inhaling nitrous oxide?

Nitrous oxide acts as a depressant (not unlike alcohol), in that it slows down the body’s system and leads to feelings of relaxation or happiness – hence the name, ‘laughing gas’.

What are the health risks of inhaling nitrous oxide

Please be aware of the following health risks:

  • Inhaling nitrous oxide through a mask (so that oxygen levels in the body are depleted) runs the risk of suffocation or asphyxiation. This could also apply to repeated inhalations when the body is not given time to recover in between.
  • Inhaling nitrous oxide from a balloon presents a low level of risk to sudden death from cardiac arrhythmia. Sudden Sniffing Deaths attributed to inhaling nitrous oxide from a balloon are very rare. However, underlying heart conditions could increase the chance of Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome.
  • Nitrous oxide inactivates B12 reserves in the body. Users are reporting tingling in the limbs and prolonged use can cause anaemia and a form of nerve damage called peripheral neuropathy.
  • Recent reports indicate that heavy use can lead to serious nerve damage. Users report loss of feeling in the hands and feet and even paralysis.

There have been 56 deaths in England and Wales specifically associated with nitrous oxide between 2001-2020 (ONS).

Harm reduction

There is always a risk associated with taking drugs of any kind. This can be due to the drug itself, to the increased risk of accident, or to someone behaving in ways they wouldn’t otherwise choose (e.g. unsafe sex). Harm reduction advice includes the following:-

  • Be as informed as possible, particularly if you have pre-existing health conditions.
  • Be careful where you get your nitrous from. Make sure you are not being supplied a more dangerous gas like butane.
  • Don’t inhale directly from the canister.
  • Take care when discharging canisters. Don’t let them come into contact with your skin – the extreme cold can cause burns.
  • Don’t use a mask or put a plastic bag over your head.
  • Don’t overdo it. If you plan to use more than one balloon, let your body recover in between.
  • Don’t take drugs on your own. Stay with a group of friends and agree that one of you will stay sober in order to keep an eye out for the others.
  • Keep to one drug – don’t mix different drugs or drink alcohol. The results can be anything from unpredictable to actively dangerous.
  • Plan your evening, stay in a safe environment – and know how you’re getting home.
  • Don’t drive a vehicle while under the influence of nitrous oxide. There have been fatal accidents linked with nitrous oxide misuse. Don’t get in a car with anyone who is using nitrous oxide.

Nitrous oxide and the Misuse of Drugs Act

As of 8th November 2023 nitrous oxide is controlled as a Class C substance under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 if it is, or is likely to be, wrongfully inhaled. Those found in unlawful possession will face either an unlimited fine, a visible community punishment or a caution – which would appear on their criminal record. Repeat serious offenders may face a prison sentence of up to two years, an unlimited fine, or both. The penalty for supply or production is up to 14 years in prison, an unlimited fine, or both.

Please see further government information on the change to the law here.

We have a nitrous oxide leaflet – just get in touch if you’d like printed copies.

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