Nitrous oxide is a colourless, non-flammable gas (at room temperature), with a slightly sweet smell and taste. It is used in medical and dental settings for anaesthesia, a propellant for whipped cream and is also used as a high performance vehicle fuel.
As an inhalant nitrous oxide is used for its dissociative (detachment from reality) and mood altering effects and is commonly used in dance party and nightclub settings.
It is also referred to as ‘laughing gas’, ‘nangs’, ‘bulbs’, ‘whippets’ or 'hippy crack'.
The effects of nitrous oxide are felt within seconds and dissipate within a few minutes.
Short-term effects include euphoria, dizziness, light-headedness, laughter, mild numbness, reduced inhibitions, sedation, loss of balance and coordination, confusion, muscular weakness and distorted perceptions. Some people may also experience nausea and anxiety.
Long-term effects include memory loss, numbness in the hands or feet and vitamin B12 depletion.
Nitrous oxide is available in canisters and large cylinders for medical use and in small gas bulbs used for whipped cream dispensers.
Method of use
Nitrous oxide can be inhaled from the small gas bulbs dispensed into a balloon or via a whipped cream dispenser, or directly from a larger canister.
There is no specific data collection on nitrous oxide use in Australia. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that most nitrous oxide use is experimental and does not usually lead to long-term use.
As with other volatile substances, nitrous oxide is cheap, legal and easily accessible and therefore is often experimented with by young people.
Nitrous oxide is commonly used in conjunction with amphetamine-type stimulants such as ecstasy or cocaine to prolong their euphoric effects.
Some users of nitrous oxide consider it to be safe because it is used in medical settings, however it is in a safe setting under medical supervision and often administered with 50% oxygen. There are still a number of harms associated with the use of nitrous oxide.
Nitrous oxide depletes vitamin B12 levels which has been linked to cases of damage to the spinal cord and paralysis.
Long-term use of nitrous oxide has been linked to short-term memory loss and learning difficulties and has also been linked with a risk of miscarriage, birth defects, kidney and liver defects.
There is also the risk of explosions when using a pressurised gas as well as cold burns when it comes into contact with the skin. Using large amounts can cause fainting and hypoxia (not getting enough oxygen) which can be fatal.
For information about how to reduce harms, see the Reducing VSU harm page of this website.