Nitrous oxide is a gas with several legitimate uses, but when inhaled it can make people feel euphoric and relaxed. This happy feeling has led to it being nicknamed ‘laughing gas’. Some people also experience hallucinations.
However, there is a risk of death as a lack of oxygen can occur when using nitrous oxide. This risk is likely to be greater if the gas is consumed in an enclosed space or if a substantial amount is rapidly used.
There are three main legitimate uses of nitrous oxide:
Nitrous oxide is a colourless gas. Some people say that it has a slightly sweet smell and taste. It is normally bought in pressured canisters, varying in size and depending on what it will be used for. The gas is commonly transferred to a container, e.g. a balloon, from which the gas is inhaled.
Nitrous oxide is most commonly inhaled through the mouth. Because nitrous oxide is a pressurised gas in the canister, there is a risk of harming yourself if you inhale nitrous oxide straight from the canister. This method can lead to sudden death due to a lack of oxygen and is one reason why nitrous oxide is sold to people in balloons.
Nitrous oxide is depressant-type drug, which means it slows down your brain and your body’s responses.
The effects of nitrous oxide vary depending on how much has been inhaled but they include:
Nitrous oxide can cause dizziness or affect your judgement, which might make you act carelessly or dangerously and put you at risk of hurting yourself, particularly in an unsafe environment.
Other risks include:
Mixing nitrous oxide with alcohol is especially dangerous as it can increase the risks associated with both substances and can lead to an increased risk of accidents or death. Sulphur dioxide, a poisonous gas, is added to the nitrous oxide used in engines to discourage people from using it to get ‘high’.
It may be possible to become psychologically dependent on nitrous oxide, meaning that users develop an increased desire to keep using it despite any harms, but the evidence on this is limited. In anecdotal reports, some people have reported developing cravings or feelings that they want to continue using nitrous oxide.
Nitrous oxide is not illegal to possess, but this doesn’t mean that it is safe to use. It is illegal, in England and Wales, for anyone to sell nitrous oxide to people under-18, if they think they’re likely to be inhaling the nitrous oxide.
Like drinking and driving, driving while under the influence of drugs is illegal – with some drugs you can still be unfit to drive the day after using. You can get a heavy fine, be disqualified from driving or even go to prison.