Originally Published: March 9, 1995 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: March 30, 2007
I am wondering about the direct effects nitrous oxide has on the brain, and if it is a fallacy that it kills brain cells.
What are the health dangers of inhaling nitrous oxide? I have heard people say that it "kills brain cells," but no one seems to know how, to what extent, and what the resulting effects are. Since nitrous oxide is commonly administered as anesthesia, is there a safe way to consume it for recreational use? If the user controls her oxygen intake, do the harmful effects (if any) still occur?
Dear Hippi crack and Balloon-head,
Nitrous oxide has been around for a couple of hundred years and has a long medical history as a mild anesthetic. More popularly known as "laughing gas," or "whippets" (when the gas is inhaled from a whipping cream charger or store-bought whipped cream dispenser), nitrous oxide is a colorless, sweet-smelling gas that produces giddiness, a dreamy or floating sensation, and a mild, pain-free state. Because nitrous oxide relieves anxiety and indirectly blocks pain, it's used most often for minor oral surgery and dental work.
When nitrous oxide is used in a health care provider's office as an anesthetic, it's carefully monitored and controlled. When used recreationally, however, the safety of monitoring and control is absent, making the use of nitrous oxide more dangerous. Nitrous oxide rapidly affects motor control, so you're likely to fall down soon after inhaling it. Sitting down when inhaling it, to avoid a major fall, reduces one of the potential negative effects.
Nitrous oxide needs to be mixed with oxygen if it's used for more than a few seconds, as breathing straight nitrous oxide can cause asphyxiation (suffocation). When the gas comes from a pressurized tank, its freezing can cause frostbite of the nose, lips, and, possibly, of the vocal cords, which the anesthetized user might not be able to feel as it's occurring.
Immediate effects following use include stimulation at first, followed by nausea, sleepiness, lack of coordination, disorientation, and loss of appetite. The effects last only a few minutes, but with repeated inhalation, they can last a few hours. With each inhalation, users feel more and more out of control; unconsciousness often results. If a user becomes unconscious after using nitrous oxide (or any other drug, including alcohol), s/he needs medical attention right away. Long-term use of inhalants can result in a condition called neuropathy, where nerve fibers are permanently damaged, causing such problems as weakness, tingling, and a loss of feeling.
For more information, read Sucking nitrous oxide — Safer from balloons or canisters? in Alice's Alcohol, Nicotine, and Other Drugs archive.