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Nitrous oxide – The drug of choice in the UK

Nitrous oxide – The drug of choice in the UK

Nitrous oxide

Nitrous Oxide (N2O), also known as «laughing gas», is a gas that; combined with oxygen it is used to reduce anxiety; It is usually used in dental treatments. It has no color or smell. The gas typically produces pleasurable sensations that can help the patient relax.


A patient who is sedated with nitrous oxide has the ability to respond to questions or requests. It is well tolerated, fast-acting, reversible, can be adjusted in various concentrations and does not produce allergic reactions, nitrous oxide/oxygen is considered a safe sedative in dentistry.


Nitrous oxide is a colorless gas that is commonly used for sedation and pain relief, and outside of professional use it is increasingly common for it to be used to get high, especially in the United Kingdom, where measures are already being proposed to penalize its possession and consumption. In Spain; Barcelona, ​​the consumption of this drug is also becoming common.

What is the therapeutic use?

Nitrous oxide is commonly used for the following situations:

  1. Sedation in patients for minor interventions, (used by dentists and medical professionals).
  2. Pain relief.
  3. Treatment of alcoholic patients.

Other uses

  • Cake shop: it is used as a food additive in whipped creams.
  • Automotive industry: to improve engine performance.

Nitrous oxide as a drug of abuse

Nitrous oxide is an old drug that is back in fashion again.

Why do they call it laughing gas?

Nitrous oxide is classified as an anesthetic. It produces dissociation of the mind from the body (a floating sensation), distorted perceptions and, in rare cases, visual hallucinations.

Illegal possession of nitrous oxide could be criminalized in England and Wales. The ministers are studying how this drug affects citizens since it has become the second most consumed drug.


It is usually sold in small silver pots and is inhaled. Nitrous oxide affects everyone differently, depending on the amount inhaled, the user’s weight and health status, tolerance level, and interaction with other substances or medications.


Laughing gas is typically used by being released in balloons from small silver canisters and then inhaled. Nitrous oxide or laughing gas is now the second most used drug among 16-24 year olds in the UK.

Nitrous oxide – The drug of choice in the UK
Nitrous oxide – The drug of choice in the UK


The immediate effects of nitrous oxide are:

  1. Euphoria.
  2. Body numbness.
  3. Sedation.
  4. Dizziness.
  5. Uncontrolled laughter.
  6. Lack of coordination.
  7. Blurry vision.
  8. Confusion.
  9. Weakness and tiredness.
  10. Drop in blood pressure.
  11. Hypoxia due to lack of oxygen.
  12. Fainting.
  13. Myocardial infarction.
  14. Burn in the lungs.
  15. Sudden death.

In case of excessive intake the risks are enormous. The effect of the gas can lead to a loss of blood pressure that can trigger fainting and myocardial infarction or hypoxia due to lack of oxygen.

The long-term effects of nitrous oxide are:

  1. Memory loss.
  2. Vitamin B12 deficiency.
  3. Ringing in the ears.
  4. Limb numbness.
  5. Spasms.
  6. Depression.
  7. Weakening of the immune system.
  8. Psychosis.
  9. Psychological dependency.

Medical consequences of nitrous oxide abuse

The high concentration of chemicals found in solvents or sprays can cause rapid and irregular heart rhythms that can lead to fatal heart failure within minutes of a prolonged inhalation session. This syndrome is known as “sudden sniffing death”.


Sudden sniffing death is primarily associated with abuse of butane, propane, and chemicals found in aerosol sprays. Inhalant abuse can also cause death from:


  1. Asphyxiation: By repeated inhalations, causing high concentrations of inhaled vapors to replace available oxygen in the lungs.
  2. Suffocation: by blocking air from entering the lungs when vapors from a plastic bag placed over the head are inhaled.
  3. Seizures: Caused by abnormal electrical discharges in the brain.
  4. Coma: The brain shuts down all but the most vital body functions.
  5. Choking: by inhaling the vomit produced after using inhalants.
  6. Fatal trauma: from accidents caused by intoxication, including car accident deaths

How to recognize the use of nitrous oxide?

If a person is or was consuming nitrous oxide, it can usually be perceived by:

  1. Chemical odors on the breath or clothing.
  2. Stains of paint or other substances on the face, hands and clothing.
  3. Hidden objects, such as empty containers of solvents or paints.
  4. Rags or clothing impregnated with chemical substances.
  5. Appearance disoriented or similar to the state of intoxication.
  6. Difficulty speaking.
  7. Nausea or lack of appetite.
  8. Lack of attention and coordination.
  9. Irritability.
  10. Depression.

Increasingly present in Spain and the United Kingdom

The United Kingdom is considering measures to penalize the illegal possession of nitrous oxide and it could be criminalized in England and Wales. The ministers have commissioned a study to find out how it affects citizens since it has become the second most consumed drug.


The problem is that when used in cake kitchen and medicine; it is legal to buy, store and trade with it. What is not allowed is to sell it to people whose use is not going to be the aforementioned, something difficult to foresee. This is a problem for the police, who point out that it constitutes a crime against public health.

Nitrous oxide – The drug of choice in the UK
Nitrous oxide – The drug of choice in the UK

Author Information
  1. Plazas Lorena. Enfermera
Bibliographic references
  1. Bowen, S.E.; Batis, J.C.; Paez Martinez, N. y Cruz, S.L., Volkow, Nora, 2011, Abuso de Inhalantes, Departamento de Salud y Servicios Humanos de los Estados Unidos, NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse), pp: 1-8 disponible en:

Last update: [ 09/25/2022 ]

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