Inhaling laughing gas is riskier than you think

laughing gasCC: Jamie Brown at Unsplash

Laughing gas, also known as nitrous oxide, is popular among those who attend festivals. It isn’t unusual to see someone selling balloons full of the stuff. With the urge to experience the effects of laughing gas, partygoers happily exchange their cash for a small dose of the substance.

Although the UK introduced laws banning the sale of laughing gas for recreational purposes, no such restrictions exist in the United States. In California, intending to inhale NO for recreational purposes is a misdemeanour. In many states, you can’t sell it to minors.

At first glance, it may seem as though NO is largely harmless. Despite this, recent statements from nursing organizations suggest that those who use it are at a higher risk of injury than they think.

What is laughing gas and why is it enticing?

Laughing gas is a street term for nitrous oxide. You’ve probably seen it jokingly referred to in cartoons such as The Simpsons. In the medical world, it’s a useful form of sedation used by surgeons. It’s excellent for putting patients at ease, in controlled conditions.

Upon taking laughing gas, patients feel a sense of ease and euphoria. They sometimes start to get the giggles, hence the friendly name. Because of this, people now take it on a recreational basis in a bid to achieve the same operating theatre effects. One of the major problems with this is that you no longer benefit from an anesthetist who is carefully controlling the dose and measuring your response. If something goes wrong, putting it right can become difficult.

Why is nitrous oxide dangerous?

In the short term, taking nitrous oxide may result in a lack of consciousness. This may also lead to difficulties with breathing. In the UK, 17 cases were linked to the illegal use of laughing gas last year.

Another acute risk is severe dizziness. Coupled with euphoria, this may result in you taking chances that you wouldn’t otherwise take. When used alongside alcohol, the sense of disinhibition that accompanies laughing gas is difficult to resist.

Many individuals who take laughing gas recreationally don’t realise there are long-term side effects too. For example, sustained use of the gas results in a Vitamin B12 deficiency. In turn, Vitamin B12 deficiencies lead to peripheral nerve damage, tingling, and numbness.

Regular use may also result in you forming white blood cells at a normal rate. With a reduced white blood cell count, you struggle to combat infections.

Is it an addictive substance?

Most substances have the potential to become addictive and laughing gas is no different. However, it isn’t as addictive as alcohol, cocaine, or heroin. The addiction isn’t physical, either. Many users who have produced anecdotal reports of their addiction state that they suffer from mental dependence. They want to continue using the gas because it stimulates happy and carefree feelings.

Next time someone offers you a little dose of laughing gas, try to reflect on the consequences.

About the Author

Laura McKeever
Laura has been a freelance medical writer for eight years. With a BSc in Medical Sciences and an MSc in Physician Assistant Studies, she complements her passion for medical news with real-life experiences. Laura’s most significant experience included writing for international pharmaceutical brands, including GSK.