Nothing funny about laughing gas
Updated: Jun 19
You may have witnessed balloons and empty whipped cream cartridges being discarded on the ground or in a parking garage. If you've been following the news in recent years, you probably didn't think they were remnants of a children's party or the result of a lazy baker's actions. You likely already know that there's a much darker reason behind this littering. But are you aware of the significant health risks associated with it? The whipped cream cartridges contain nitrous oxide, commonly known as "laughing gas." It is a colorless, sweet-smelling gas commonly used as an anesthetic in medical and dental procedures. However, the gas is also used recreationally, and this is not a new phenomenon. Nitrous oxide was first discovered in 1772 and has been used for recreational purposes alongside its medical applications throughout history. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) recognizes three notable periods of use. The first occurred shortly after the gas's discovery when the British upper class used it at "laughing gas parties."
The second period began in the 1960s when its increased use in dentistry spilled into emerging drug cultures. Since around 2010, this trend has resurfaced. Unfortunately, the gas is now cheap and readily accessible.
Whipped cream canisters are sold in nearly every grocery store, and there are even online stores that specialize in selling the gas solely for the purpose of getting high.
In the UK, nitrous oxide is the second most commonly used drug among 16-24 year olds.
According to the Swedish Poisons Information Centre, in 2021, they received three times as many inquiries about nitrous oxide compared to the previous year. "Food grade" and "medical grade" may sound safe, right? That's how they are often advertised. However, food-grade Nitrous oxide is not intended for inhalation, and in medical settings, the gas is always mixed with oxygen and administered by trained professionals.
A common practice is to fill balloons with laughing gas, but users may also inhale the gas directly from the cylinder. It provides a quick high, lasting only a couple of minutes, during which users may experience euphoria, a sense of detachment from reality, uncontrollable laughter, and hallucinations.
But a couple of minutes of euphoria may very well lead to not so fun symptoms; blurred vision, numbness in legs and arms and dizziness.
Large amounts of the gas can cause oxygen deprivation, leading to loss of consciousness, seizures, and even death. Frequent or prolonged use of Nitrous oxide can result in various health problems, including nerve damage, anemia, and memory loss. Long-term use can also cause damage to the brain and spinal cord, resulting in varying degrees of paralysis. Since the gas cylinders contain high pressure, inhaling the gas directly from them can cause frostbite injuries in the mouth, nose, and airways.
Clearly, this is no laughing matter. Let's break the myth about laughing gas being a "safe high".
If you do use laughing gas even though knowing about the risks, please remember to stay as safe as possible. The Alcohol and Drug foundation gives these advice.*
do not use it alone or in dangerous or isolated places
do not put plastic bags over the head or impede your breathing in any way
do not spray the gas near flammable substances, such as naked flames or cigarettes
do not mix with alcohol or other drugs
do not stand up or dance while inhaling, as you may pass out