Health Effects of Nitrous Oxide Abuse

Health Effects of Nitrous Oxide Abuse

Nitrous oxide, also sometimes known as laughing gas, is a legally available gas used for purposes that include anesthesia during certain dental and surgical procedures, as well as food preparation and the fueling of rocket and racing engines. Substance abusers also sometimes use the gas as an inhalant. Like all other inhalants, it’s popular because it provides consciousness-altering effects while allowing users to avoid some of the legal issues surrounding illicit or illegal drugs of abuse. Abuse of nitrous oxide can produce significant short-term and long-term damage to human health, including a form of oxygen starvation called hypoxia, brain damage, and a serious vitamin B12 deficiency that can lead to nerve damage.

Background Information

Nitrous oxide is also known chemically as dinitrogen monoxide or dinitrogen oxide. The gas has no color, cannot be set on fire and smells a little sweet when inhaled. In its medical context, nitrous oxide belongs to a class of anesthetics called dissociative anesthetics; these substances get their name because they produce varying degrees of disconnection (dissociation) between the normally integrated perceptions of consciousness, the body, and the surrounding physical environment. Nitrous oxide can produce profound short-term dissociation, but its effects fade very quickly. Generally speaking, its anesthetic properties are relatively weak, and doctors frequently combine it with more powerful anesthetics during surgery. When used on its own, it can block the brain’s normal oxygen supply; doctors and dentists combine it with oxygen to prevent the possibility of nitrous oxide-related brain damage.

In food preparation, nitrous oxide is used as an aerosol propellant in both cooking sprays and whipped cream canisters. While access to dental and surgical forms of the gas is quite limited, anyone over the age of 18 can legally purchase the gas in large tanks or small canisters (commonly referred to as “whippets”) intended for food-related use. Most inhalant abusers of nitrous oxide rely on whippets, although some also have access to larger tanks of the gas.

Basic Inhalant Effects

When inhaled, nitrous oxide immediately produces a strong dissociative state that lasts for roughly a minute or so. During this timeframe, the user typically loses all motor control and cannot stand up without help. Additional “desired” effects of the gas include sedation, euphoria and giddiness; it was the combination of these effects that earned the gas its nickname of “laughing gas.” Like dissociation, these effects pass very quickly. For this reason, abusers of the gas often inhale repeated doses during a single session of use.

Hypoxia and Brain Damage

As stated previously, nitrous oxide inhalation can block the normal flow of oxygen to the brain. This occurs when the gas builds up in the body more rapidly than it can be removed through natural elimination. The technical term for nitrous oxide’s effects on oxygen levels is diffusion hypoxia. As we’ve already noted, doctors and dentists work to avoid diffusion hypoxia by supplying their patients with enough oxygen to offset a nitrous oxide buildup.

However, abusers of the gas almost universally inhale it without supplemental oxygen. This means that each nitrous oxide inhalation can trigger the onset of hypoxia. While this effect, like the gas itself, only lasts for a short amount of time, it also produces cumulative results. This means that people who use the gas repeatedly or for extended periods of time during a single session can develop increasing levels of oxygen deprivation. In some cases, this deprivation can result in death. In addition, hypoxia can lead directly to brain damage by starving individual brain cells of their oxygen supply and killing them.

Vitamin B12 Deficiency and Nerve Damage

The human body needs vitamin B12 (also called cobalamin) for purposes that include maintenance of normal nervous system function, maintenance of normal brain function and the formation of DNA and healthy red blood cells. Nitrous oxide lowers the body’s ability to properly use this vitamin. In regular nitrous abusers, reduced availability of vitamin B12 can lead to damage in the nerves that supply sensation to the upper and lower extremities. The main noticeable effect of this damage is typically numbness in the toes and fingers. People who stop using the gas may eventually recover normal sensation in their affected areas; however, continued use can produce long-term or permanent numbness, as well as other nerve-related problems.

Additional Problems

Nitrous oxide stored in tanks can fall to a very low temperature, and people who inhale the gas from a tank can potentially develop cold-related burns on their skin, lips, or throat linings. People who inhale nitrous from a tank can also develop lung damage as a result of pressure exerted by the release of the gas. While psychological addiction to nitrous oxide is a rare phenomenon, it does sometimes occur.

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