Nitrous Oxide Effects and Addiction

Nitrous oxide (N2O) is a chemical compound that comes in gas form. Medical use of nitrous oxide gas benefits from its analgesic properties. The use of nitrous oxide mixed with oxygen is extremely normal for the relief of pain during childbirth and following injuries caused by accidents. 

But over the past decade, it has fast become a popular recreational drug. Readily available to buy for use in cooking, food-grade nitrous oxide canisters make it one of the least expensive and accessible drugs in the UK. Often supplied illegally in clubs, it’s commonly used as a party drug. In accordance with the Office for National Statistics drug misuse in England and Wales 2023 report, nitrous oxide is a frequently used drug for 16 to 24-year-olds.

The gas is typically transferred into balloons and inhaled; the practice is also known as “nagging” or “nanging”. Also known as laughing gas, among other street names, the use of nitrous oxide has various effects, including making users feel lightheaded and giggly, often inducing uncontrollable laughter. 

Nitrous Oxide Drug Street Names

  • Gas balloons

  • Balloons
  • Laughing gas
  • Chargers
  • Hippie crack
  • Noz
  • Cracker
  • Nangs
  • Whippets
  • Bulbs.

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Nitrous Oxide Effects

Nitrous oxide does not cause physical dependence and addiction. However, tolerance can build up from continued use and may eventually require a person to take higher doses in order to achieve the same results. 

Regular use can also result in a psychological addiction, which can trigger strong cravings in the same way physical dependence does. Nitrous oxide effects are immediate and tend to last a couple of minutes at the most.

Signs of nitrous oxide use include:

  • Dizziness
  • Feeling lightheaded
  • Poor coordination
  • Being unresponsive to surroundings
  • Headache
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Auditory hallucinations
  • Delusions
  • Fainting
  • Blurred vision
  • Sweating
  • Dissociation.

Behaviour that is typically a result of nitrous oxide use includes:

  • Laughing
  • Euphoria
  • Disorientation
  • Paranoia
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Mania.

It is possible to die from nitrous oxide as it could trigger a throat spasm, resulting in asphyxiation due to lack of oxygen. There is also a possibility of having a severe allergic reaction, which could be fatal if not treated quickly. If you or another person develops a fever, chills, difficulty breathing, muscle spasms or hives after taking nitrous gas, dial 999 immediately.

Long-Term Effects of Nitrous Oxide

Despite nitrous oxide’s short-lived high, the long-term effects can be extremely serious. The most serious physical and psychological effects of regular nitrous oxide use are:

  • Lung damage from inhaling directly from the canisters

  • Bladder damage, which can lead to temporary or permanent urinary incontinence

  • Faecal incontinence
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Spinal cord degeneration (primarily caused by a vitamin B12 metabolic disorder induced by the use of nitrous oxide)

  • Nerve damage which can lead to partial paralysis 

  • Cardiovascular damage and increased risk of heart attack
  • Brain damage
  • Anaemia

  • Muscle spasms
  • Tinnitus (ringing, buzzing, and clicking noises in the ears)
  • Psychosis and delusions
  • Memory loss.

The extent of these nitrous oxide effects will vary depending on a multitude of factors, including the dosage, duration of use and age, as well as physical and mental health.

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Withdrawal Symptoms of Nitrous Oxide

Nitrous oxide gas doesn’t possess any physically addictive properties. As a result, people who decide to stop using nitrous oxide won’t experience any physical withdrawal symptoms. 

However, users can develop a psychological addiction, and they may continually crave the drug for its effects. When without nitrous oxide, feelings of agitation can cause severe distress and drive users to take extraordinary measures to acquire some.

Signs that Someone Is Using Nitrous Oxide

Although nitrous oxide tends to be a social drug, it will sometimes be consumed alone, especially when large amounts are used. Nitrous oxide is used in a variety of places, such as outdoors in parks or areas such as parked vehicles, at parties and clubs or during concerts and music festivals.

Although nitrous oxide is not physically addictive, you might want to watch out for these signs that might indicate that someone is using it:

  • Withdrawal from friends and family

  • Disappearing for periods of time without explanation
  • Financial issues

  • Not attending work or school

  • Apathy or an absence of interest in recreational pursuits.

Addiction Treatment for Nitrous Oxide

Both outpatient clinics and residential rehabilitation centres provide care and treatment for addiction. The primary benefit of residential rehab is that you won’t have access to drugs, which will allow you to give all of your attention to overcoming your addiction. 

Treatment for nitrous oxide use will normally involve drugs to ease the psychiatric symptoms. Regular individual counselling and group therapy sessions will be a significant part of the treatment process in a residential rehab centre. These sessions are accompanied by leisure activities that will assist in creating new behavioural routines.

The NHS does provide addiction treatment, although it is normally only provided on an outpatient basis. To qualify for NHS funding for residential therapy, you must meet demanding qualifying requirements. 

At Step by Step Recovery, alcohol and drug abuse and addiction are treated at The Lighthouse residential rehab in Essex. One of our caring team members may be able to arrange for same-day admission if a bed is vacant. For free, bespoke assistance, please fill out our online evaluation form or give our team a call at 0800 170 1222.

Nitrous Oxide FAQ

Nitrous oxide does not cause physical dependence, which means it is not physically addictive. However, limited self-control over how often you use nitrous oxide is a sign of psychological addiction.

Nitrous oxide stays in the body for approximately five minutes and is not traceable on any drug tests.

While using nitrous oxide may be considered to be relatively harmless, there are still a number of significant long-term risks to health. Burns can occur as a result of touching the canisters when filling balloons with the gas, and in some cases, they can be severe enough to require a skin graft. Long-term users of nitrous oxide can also suffer from incontinence and permanent paralysis.

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 (PSA), it’s illegal to produce or sell nitrous oxide for recreational use. Penalties for possession with intent to supply can be a prison sentence of up to seven years and/or a fine. 

Giving these drugs to anyone else, regardless of whether they’re free, might result in a life sentence in prison.

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Page revised in March 2023, by Danielle Byatt, a Level 4 addictions counselling, Level 5 in Leadership & Management, BA applied social work. and Treatment Director at Step by Step Recovery.

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