Nitrous Oxide

Recently medical practitioners in Nevada County have seen an increase in patients being seen at the emergency department and other settings as a result of complications from recreational nitrous oxide use. These complications are often neurological, ranging from tingling in the extremities, loss of sensation and significant weakness to long-term neurological damage.

Below you will find health and safety information about nitrous oxide and a nitrous oxide health education toolkit with downloadable resources (fact sheet, presentation slides and a social media image and sample post).

What is nitrous oxide?

Nitrous oxide (also known as laughing gas, “noz” or whippets/whip-its) is a colorless gas that is commonly used for sedation and pain relief in medical settings, but is also used recreationally.

In medical settings, nitrous oxide is highly regulated and typically administered along with oxygen for safety. When used recreationally, it is often ingested at much higher concentrations.

How is nitrous oxide used?

Nitrous oxide most commonly comes in highly-pressurized metal canisters. People who are using nitrous oxide often inhale the gas through balloons or other mediums. Inhaling nitrous oxide directly from the canister is dangerous because the gas is under high pressure and comes out extremely cold, which can damage the throat and lungs, stop breathing or slow the heart to a dangerous level.

What are the short-term effects of nitrous oxide?

The short-term effects of nitrous oxide use vary for each person. It often produces a sense of dissociation of the mind from the body (a sense of floating) and distorted perceptions.

Nitrous oxide affects everyone differently, based on:

  • Amount taken
  • Person’s size, weight and health
  • Whether the person is used to taking it
  • Whether other drugs are taken around the same time

The following effects may be felt almost immediately and can last for a few minutes:

  • Euphoria
  • Numbness of the body
  • Sedation
  • Giddiness
  • Uncontrolled laughter
  • Uncoordinated movements
  • Blurred vision
  • Confusion
  • Dizziness and/or light-headedness
  • Sweating
  • Feeling unusually tired or weak

If a large amount of nitrous oxide is inhaled it can produce:

  • Loss of blood pressure
  • Fainting

Can you overdose on nitrous oxide?

Inhaling nitrous oxide can be fatal in rare instances if you don’t get enough oxygen (known as hypoxia) or a loss in blood pressure that results in a heart attack.

What are the long-term effects of nitrous oxide?

Long-term effects also vary from person-to-person and depend on the frequency, amount and length of use. Heavy use of nitrous oxide may result in:

  • Memory loss
  • Vitamin B12 depletion
  • Brain and nerve damage
  • Significant paralysis
  • Foot drop
  • Inability to walk
  • Ringing or buzzing in the ears
  • Incontinence (inability to control bladder and/or bowels)
  • Numbness in the hands or feet
  • Limb spasms and incoordination
  • Potential birth defects (if consumed during pregnancy)
  • Weakened immune system
  • Disruption to reproductive systems
  • Depression
  • Psychological dependence
  • Psychosis
  • Low blood pressure
  • Lack of judgement and safety awareness

Is there treatment available?

While nitrous oxide is not physically addictive, psychological dependence does happen. Anyone interested in treatment for nitrous oxide or other drug use, can visit the Local Resources page under Treatment to find treatment resource or contact Nevada County Behavioral Health at 530-265-1437.

Anyone experiencing the effects of heavy nitrous oxide use, including nerve damage, should consult a medical practitioner as soon as possible, since early research shows early treatment improves the chances of recovery. Common medical tests include lab tests for Vitamin B12 levels and homocysteine levels. The primary treatment for the neurological impacts of heavy nitrous oxide use is typically a regimen of Vitamin B12 injections, although the success of this treatment and recovery varies for each person.

Additional Resources

Recreational nitrous oxide use in Europe: situation, risks, responses

Yale School of Medicine: Nitrous Oxide Effects Are Reversible with Early Treatment