Nitrous: The Good Time Party Drug With Big Time Consequences

 Empty nitrous oxide canisters discarded after dangerous illicit use

What is Nitrous Oxide?

A sometimes-legal recreational drug, nitrous oxide (N2O), is widely available across the US and is rapidly gaining popularity in dance, festivals, and club scenes. Clinically, nitrous, more commonly known as laughing gas, is used as an anesthetic, often for dental work or childbirth. On the street, you will hear it referred to as whippets (also spelled Whip-Its or whippits) or balloons due to how it is often sold packaged inside balloons for inhalation.

It is typically packaged in small metal canisters which contain a mere eight grams of the drug. Those containers are punctured, released into a balloon, and then inhaled or can be dispensed using whipped cream dispensers. It is also available in higher volume tanks, which is how it is sold to doctors and dentists, and then similarly pumped into a balloon and inhaled. Outside of concert venues and festivals, you can often see dealers carrying balloons or rolling a large tank of nitrous behind them as they look for buyers.

Whippets are fast becoming a mainstay of party culture in the younger generation all over the globe. In the UK, where use is slightly higher than in the US, it is the second most popular recreational drug, only behind marijuana. The drug lowers inhibitions, induces euphoria, and can even bring on hallucinations. Some users partake to relieve pain or to self-medicate their depression or bipolar disorder.

Most recreational users partake infrequently enough that they are not at high risk of long-term damage. There is a subset of users, however, who routinely abuse it, with some growing to use hundreds of canisters per day. This abuse of a drug that was once believed to be innocuous is landing more and more users in the hospital, or even the morgue, every day.

What Are the Dangers?

The common misconception held by many is that whippets are a safe drug to use, perhaps because they are not intended for getting high or due to their easy availability. Some older studies of its use even claimed it was relatively safe as far as recreational drugs went and stated there was no need for legislative action to curb public access to the drug. We now know this to be a grossly incorrect assumption.

One problem with nitrous is that it is widely available from places like smoke shops and even for delivery at a very low cost compared to other drugs. Ease of access makes it a quick and inexpensive way for some users to go out and blow off steam.

Its effects come on within seconds but are brief, lasting only a few seconds to a few minutes. Nitrous has psychoactive, euphoric, and sometimes even hallucinogenic properties. All of these factors contribute to a tendency to abuse the drug — a quick onset gives instant gratification, and a rapid come-down makes the user want more and more.

The dangers of use are varied, and scientists are still learning how deep the problem goes. Some of the more common immediate risks include:

  • Frostbite on the face as a result of inhaling the liquefied gas
  • Exploding canisters
  • Things like car accidents or falling and hitting the head as a result of dizziness or unconsciousness following inhalation
  • Muscle spasms and seizures
  • Asphyxiation
  • Sudden sniffing death syndrome can happen as soon as the first use and occurs when someone inhales many chemicals rapidly, causing the heart to stop

Some of the long-term effects include:

  • Numbness, weakness, tingling, and pain in extremities
  • Difficulty walking and damage to fine motor skills
  • Temporary or permanent nerve damage
  • Infertility
  • Delayed behavioral development due to brain damage
  • Hearing loss
  • Damage to organs, including the liver and kidneys
  • Temporary or permanent spinal cord damage or other permanent physical disability caused B12 inactivation
  • Permanent brain damage caused by prolonged low oxygen in the blood, also known as hypoxia
  • Addiction
  • Death

How Can It Be Treated?

It is possible to overdose on nitrous. Medical professionals can potentially treat an overdose by stopping the seizure or restarting the heart.

Withdrawal symptoms in someone recovering from prolonged use include nausea, loss of appetite, sweating, agitation and mood problems, and difficulty sleeping.

Some success in treating the long-term physical effects has been seen with high-dose intramuscular B12 replacement. However, recovery is slow and often incomplete. Many patients display ongoing symptoms months or years after cessation. There are countless case studies of individuals who were permanently disabled or unable to walk again due to irreversible damage to the spinal column.

Abstinence is the only option to prevent further damage from nitrous use. Immediate treatment should be sought to stop use and get the individual into recovery. Cognitive behavioral therapy and other forms of talk therapy can help with the addiction component. Our doctors are experienced in treating all kinds of addiction and can help you or a loved one suffering from an addiction to nitrous oxide. Give us a call to see how we can help.



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