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Nitrous Oxide

laughing gas, balloons, whippets


Nitrous Oxide is a gas with pain-relieving properties.

It has been used as a recreational drug for over 200 years - about as long as it has been used in medicine.

Nitrous Oxide mixed with Oxygen is the ‘gas and air’ given to women in labour, and is used in dentistry to relieve pain and anxiety.

It has become widely and easily available for recreational use because it can be legally sold for the purpose of making whipped cream.

It is popular at house parties and music festivals, where balloons filled with the gas may cost around £1.50.


method of use

Inhaled from a balloon filled with the gas.



Effects vary between people and are rarely quite the same twice, but a rush of dizziness and euphoria is normal, and people often burst out laughing.

Sound is oddly distorted, voices and music often turning into a throbbing roar like a helicopter.

Nitrous oxide is a ‘dissociative’ drug, so the user might feel like they are becoming apart from the situation they were in, or even their own body, and sounds and sights can seem to fade into the distance.

Hallucinations are possible, from simple moving bright dots to complete detailed dreamscapes, although most users do not experience complex hallucinations

Sometimes, people take many ‘hits’ of nitrous oxide over a few hours.

Aside from these mental effects, when inhaled recreationally in the usual (and safest) way, from a balloon, the gas in the lungs displaces air, temporarily preventing a normal amount of oxygen getting into the blood. This may cause the heart to beat faster, and limbs to feel tingly or heavy.

If the user is in good health, understands the risks, and avoids dangerous methods, nitrous oxide is one of the less risky drugs. It is very much less dangerous than other commonly used inhalants such as household solvents (e.g. butane and toluene).


health risks

Nitrous Oxide use can cause harm and even death but most problems result from dangerous methods of use and not the drug itself.

The foremost risk is of brain damage and death by asphyxiation. Dependency is a rare but serious outcome of Nitrous Oxide use.

People have given themselves frostbite of the lips, mouth and even vocal chords through inhaling Nitrous Oxide directly from the whippit ‘cracker’, or the nozzle of gas cylinders, and further serious damage could be done to the lungs if the gas came out at high pressure.

People with heart conditions or abnormal blood pressure may be at higher risk as the drop in oxygen levels caused by inhaling Nitrous Oxide raises the heart rate and can cause arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats), which are usually not problematic, but could cause heart attacks and similar emergencies in susceptible people. For similar reasons, it is inadvisable to mix Nitrous Oxide with other drugs, especially stimulants, as effects on blood pressure and heart rate could be unpredictable.

It has also been found that Nitrous Oxide can be physically and mentally damaging when taken several times each day for long periods as it gradually depletes the Vitamin B12 in the body, which is essential for the maintenance of a healthy nervous system. The symptoms of such damage vary, and have included severe weakness of the arms and legs in some, and in a handful of cases, episodes of mental illness.

Treatment with high doses of B12 is effective, but some damage can be irreversible. It is likely that less severe vitamin B12 deficiencies caused by nitrous oxide overuse go undiagnosed, but cause milder symptoms, such as depression, forgetfulness and tiredness. If you are struggling to control your use of any substance you should see your doctor.


harm reduction

Only inhale Nitrous Oxide from a balloon, never directly from a gas canister or whippet.

Make sure you’re with friends in case you experience problems.

There is a risk of falling when taking Nitrous Oxide whilst standing or dancing. It is safest to get comfortable on a sofa or bed.


the law

It is illegal to sell Nitrous Oxide to under 18s, and selling it to anyone you suspect may use it for the purposes of inhalation is illegal under the Medicines Act.

However, it is widely and legally sold as a means to whip cream. Possession of whippits is legal, but if the police found you with large amounts of whippits, you could be charged with intending to supply it for inhalation.


Published in Alcohol & Drugs