Nitrous oxide, ‘laughing gas’ or ‘hippy crack’

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 canisters (‘whippits’). The gas is then decanted into a balloon from which it is inhaled.

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.
  • The use of individual nitrous oxide balloons is not associated with sudden sniffing death syndrome but people with heart conditions may be at higher risk as nitrous oxide, like other volatile substances, can cause heart arrhythmia (skipped heartbeats).
  • 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.

There have been 36 deaths in Great Britain specifically associated with nitrous oxide between 2001-2016 (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 charger.
  • 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.
  • Particularly if you’re vegetarian or anaemic, eat to replenish your levels of B12 – eggs, cheese, marmite etc. are good.
  • 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.

We also have a nitrous oxide leaflet available which you can view here – just get in touch if you’d like printed copies.

Published: June 2019
Review date: June 2020

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