Nitrous oxide abuse – laughing gas is no joke

Recent discussions over the current legislation of nitrous oxide have led to the government going against recommendations from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), opting to make possession of the drug a criminal offence in the UK. Levelling Up Secretary, Michael Gove, supports this decision, stating he wants to “deal with the scourge” of nitrous oxide and put a stop to drug use that can “ruin lives”. Appearing in headlines intermittently for the past decade, nitrous oxide has been responsible for 56 deaths since 2001 and is deemed the third most deadly volatile substance.

Despite its widespread use, there is still a lack of awareness about this substance and its effects. Laughing gas, “hippy crack”, NOS, balloons, chargers – nitrous oxide goes by many names, but how well do you understand the risks involved with taking this drug?

Nitrous oxide: the statistics

Nitrous oxide use peaked in 2017 with 9% of 16 to 24 year olds having consumed the drug. This reduced to 8.8% between the years 2017 and 2020, and declined further post-pandemic, with 3.9% of younger people having used the drug from 2021 to 2022.

According to statistics, nitrous oxide was the third most used drug in 2020. Nitrous oxide is typically used in social situations, including in parks and public spaces, nightclubs, and festivals.

What are the dangers of nitrous oxide?

White the short high may be pleasurable for some, is laughing gas really worth the risk? The physical and psychological impacts associated with this substance can be serious. Some of the dangers of nitrous oxide abuse include:

Nitrous oxide and hypoxia (lack of oxygen)

In the medical field, oxygen is added to nitrous oxide to counteract these effects, but the same cannot be said when the drug is used recreationally. The effects of hypoxia can cause fainting and seizures, with the most common cause of death being asphyxiation from a lack of oxygen.

Vitamin B12 deficiency

Studies have shown that nitrous oxide use can cause vitamin B12 deficiency. Health problems associated with vitamin B12 deficiency include mental confusion, brain fog, peripheral neuropathy (nerve damage in hands, feet or arms), spinal degeneration and high levels of homocysteine in the blood (which increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and dementia).

Brain development in young adults

Research has found that nitrous oxide can cause neurotoxicity and is shown to “induce cell death in neurons after prolonged exposure”. This is especially dangerous for still-developing brains in those under the age of 24 and can sadly have lasting effects on cognitive function.

Oesophageal or facial burns

It’s particularly dangerous to inhale nitrous oxide directly from a canister because the gas is under very high pressure. Doing so can cause burns to the face, mouth, throat or oesophagus. It is also possible to get frostbite burns on your hands when “cracking” the canister.

Risk of accidental injury

Nitrous oxide may cause loss of coordination and balance which can result in accidental falls and injury. Reduced impairment and disorientation can also increase the risk of road accidents if you operate a vehicle while under the influence of laughing gas.

Why did ACMD advise against nitrous oxide legislation?

The ACMD advised against the government’s steps to enforce a ban on nitrous oxide, stating the “significant burden” that would be placed on legitimate uses of the substance. Nitrous oxide is also used in the food industry as a propellant to whip cream, it can be used in car engines and also in medical and dental settings as an anaesthetic.

The ACMD suggested that the new control measures would be “disproportionate to the level of harm associated with nitrous oxide”. Instead the AMCD recommended that additional measures should be taken to limit non-legitimate supply, and the government should focus on educating the public on both the short and long-term effects of the drug.


What’s the solution?

The misuse of laughing gas is a serious issue that undoubtedly needs to be addressed, but what is the solution to this growing problem?

With education and awareness, the general public can be better informed on the dangers involved with nitrous oxide use and take steps to prevent harm. There’s a particular need for education around the dangers that come with increased doses in a single session, as well as chronic use of laughing gas.

Appropriate treatment and support for those affected by nitrous oxide are also essential. Emergency care and support from addiction therapists are valuable resources for anyone who is struggling with an addiction to volatile substances.

UKAT aims to provide you with these solutions by unveiling the truth about this damaging substance and offering our professional support if ever you need it. If you or someone you know has been impacted by nitrous oxide or any other substance, our team is on standby to help.

Please call or message UKAT today for confidential and fast access to substance abuse and addiction treatment.