Nitrous Oxide: No Laughing Matter?

by admin on October 5, 2022

By Annika Lindorsson Krugel

In the last week nitrous oxide has hit the headlines more than once; Prince Harry is reportedly partying the night away on the “hippy crack”, and police in Anaheim, California, are linking at least two cases of suicide in the past month to the gas.

So what is nitrous oxide all about? It is easy to make the assumption that because it is legal to use it is “safe” – but is this the case, and what are the current trends among today’s youth?

History Of Nitrous Oxide

Nitrous oxide is said to be the latest drug craze sweeping across the U.S. (and elsewhere). The history of the drug goes all the way back to the 18th century, at which time it was very popular among the aristocracy, along with cocaine and opium. It had another revival with the Beat Generation that experimented with different psychedelic drugs during the 1950’s.

Nitrous Oxide: A Recreational Drug

Physicians and dentists have used the drug for its anesthetic and analgesic effects for many years but it is now said to be becoming the recreational drug of choice for many teenagers.

Nitrous oxide is inhaled by placing the small container in which it is stored, a “whip-it”, into a “cracker” and then attaching a balloon at the end of the cracker. The gas is then inhaled through the balloon.

Nitrous oxide is said to give a rush similar to heroin or crack cocaine but it only lasts for a few minutes. It is most commonly known as laughing gas because users often end up in hysterics for the duration of the hit.

Dangers Of Inhaling Nitrous Oxide

An article in the journal Drugs and Alcohol Today argues that the danger of inhaling nitrous oxide is determined by the method of administration. For example, the author argues that the popular canister and balloon method is relatively safe, but that inhaling with respirators or airtight bags is very dangerous as it carries a high risk of asphyxiation, narcosis and potentially even death.

At high doses nitrous oxide starts replacing oxygen in the bloodstream, resulting in a depression of the central nervous system and halted breathing. Long-term abuse can also result in bone marrow suppression, blood cell problems and poisoning of the central nervous system, according to Danny Lee-Frost from the Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency.

The rush experienced from inhaling nitrous oxide is caused when the brain gets starved of oxygen. This oxygen starvation is also what makes nitrous oxide a potentially fatal drug. So even though it may appear a safe, or at least relative harmless, way of getting a quick laugh there are, as with every other drug, potentially serious consequences of abusing it.


Mike Jay (2008) Nitrous oxide: recreational use, regulation and harm reduction Drugs and Alcohol Today Volume 8, Number 3 / September 2008

Bill Rams (2010) Police: Nitrous oxide is new teen drug of choice, The Orange County Register Sept. 27, 2010

Andrew Malone (2010) It can cause brain damage or even death and is illegal. So why is Prince Harry taking ‘hippy crack’? Mail Online Sept 24, 2022

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