Nitrous Oxide Abuse | Overview, Effects, & Dangers

Nitrous oxide, otherwise known as "laughing gas," is used by a number of industries, but it is also abused as an inhalant. The gas is relatively harmless if encountered in a ventilated space or during controlled use, but it can be dangerous when abused.

Nitrous oxide use as a recreational drug has occurred for centuries. Today, nitrous oxide is widely and legally available.

Recreational use of this inhalant is relatively common in certain scenes, including music festivals and parties. However, heavy patterns of abuse are also common among certain individuals alone in their own homes.

What Is Nitrous Oxide?

Nitrous oxide, also known as dinitrogen monoxide, N20, laughing gas, or whippets, is a colorless gaseous compound with a sweet taste and scent.

It is stored as a liquid and used in rocketry, aerosol propellants, and in medicine or dentistry as a dissociative anesthetic, analgesic, and mild sedative.

Nitrous oxide emissions are the third most significant long-lived atmospheric greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide and methane, and a major contributor to global warming/climate change.

They have also been found to heavily contribute to depletion of the ozone layer.

Effects Of Nitrous Oxide

In recreational settings, 1/4 oz containers of nitrous oxide are used to fill balloons or whipped cream dispensers, which are then used to inhale the gas without causing frostbite.

When absorbed into the bloodstream through the lungs, nitrous oxide is transported to the brain and binds to a variety of different receptors, causing a unique range of effects.

Severe Impairment

Use of nitrous oxide greatly decreases a person’s ability to react to the world around them and lends feelings of calm, floating, pleasure, or mild hallucinations.

Coordination and perceptions can be heavily impaired, though these effects wear off relatively quickly when the gas is removed.

An Enlightened High

Many people describe being high on nitrous oxide as unlocking the secrets of the universe or ultimate truths, though these revelations can never be recorded or remembered afterwards.

This feeling of spiritual connection, enlightenment, and escape is often cited as a driving force behind nitrous oxide addiction when it does occur.

Dangers Of Nitrous Oxide Use

While limited exposure to nitrous oxide is considered relatively non-toxic, occupational exposure is a hazard for healthcare providers and some industrial workers, especially when working with the gas in poorly ventilated spaces.

Continuous-flow fresh-air ventilation systems or N2O emission scavenger systems should be used to counter this hazard.

Those who use the drug recreationally, however, far exceed these safety limits and put themselves at risk for much more severe health consequences.

Side Effects

Nitrous oxide can cause certain short-term side effects, especially if too much gas is inhaled, or it is inhaled too quickly.

These potential side effects include:

  • excessive sweating
  • changes in blood pressure
  • shivering
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • dizziness
  • fatigue

Vitamin B12 Deficiency

Long-term use of nitrous oxide lowers vitamin B12 levels in the body, leading to anemia, nerve damage, tinnitus, and numbness in the extremities.

Accidental Injury

Nitrous oxide causes dizziness, disassociation, and loss of motor control and coordination. This can lead to serious falls and other accidents while under the influence of the drug. Frostbite can also occur if the gas is inhaled directly from a tank where it is contained as a liquid.


While a nitrous oxide high is short-lived, it can be taken repeatedly to provide extended periods of euphoria and altered consciousness.

This ease of use and legal widespread availability can make the drug severely addicting for some individuals, leading to high financial expenses, relationship strain, and difficulties keeping up with personal responsibilities.

Birth Defects & Miscarriage

Women who are pregnant should not use nitrous oxide and should avoid secondhand exposure to the gas, as excess concentrations in the blood can cause birth defects and increased risk of miscarriage.


Excessive doses of nitrous oxide far beyond those used in a medical setting can cause severe overdose effects.

Symptoms of overdose include:

  • wheezing and difficulty breathing
  • choking or chest tightness
  • nose, eye, or throat irritation
  • seizures
  • blue-tinted fingers, toes, or lips
  • elevated heart rate and blood pressure
  • psychosis
  • hallucinations
  • heart attack
  • stroke

Hypoxia & Asphyxiation

Serious harm can occur if nitrous oxide use prevents a person from breathing enough oxygen to support their life-functions.

This can result in:

  • hypoxia (insufficient bodily oxygen)
  • coma
  • brain and organ damage
  • death from asphyxiation (lack of oxygen)

In medical settings, oxygen is used along with nitrous oxide and administered to flush the gas out afterwards to entirely eliminate this risk.

Legal Exposure

While possession of nitrous oxide is legal in the United States, recreational use can still potentially be criminally prosecuted under laws regulating the purpose of nitrous oxide possession, use, and distribution.

Treating Inhalant Abuse

Inhalant misuse and addiction are dangerous long-term behavioral health issues that can be treated through professional recovery programs. Treatment services include a combination of group therapy, behavioral therapy, mental health counseling, and peer support.

To learn more about our outpatient treatment options, please contact Northeast Addictions Treatment Center today.

Written by
Northeast Addition Editorial Team

Published on

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This page does not provide medical advice.

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