What is Nitrous Oxide?

Nitrous oxide (N2O) is a clear, colorless, oxidizing liquefied gas with a slightly sweet odor. The product is stable at room temperature. While classified by the U. S. Department of Transportation (DOT) as a nonflammable gas, nitrous oxide will support combustion and can detonate at temperatures in excess of 650 °C (1202 °F).

Effects of Nitrous Oxide on the Human Body

Nitrous oxide’s painkilling and numbing qualities begin to take effect when the gas is inhaled at concentrations of 10%. At increasingly higher concentrations, a sense of well-being, or “high,” is experienced. A person experiencing a nitrous oxide high could:

  • Have slurred speech
  • Have difficulty in maintaining his or her balance or walking
  • Be slow to respond to questions
  • Be immune to any stimulus such as pain, loud noises, and speech
  • Lapse into unconsciousness

Nitrous oxide that is inhaled over a long period of time can lead to a vitamin B12 deficiency. When the level of vitamin B12 in the body is reduced, the red blood cell count is lowered, resulting in anemia and nerve degeneration. A vitamin B12 deficiency causes a person to have painful sensations in the arms or legs, have an unsteady walk or gait, become unbalanced, feel or appear to be irritable, and suffer intellectual deterioration.

What Are the Dangers?

Nitrous oxide readily displaces air, causing asphyxiation. A person who is rendered unconscious by nitrous oxide is likely to stop breathing within a few seconds as a result of a depressed central nervous system–brain, brain stem, and spinal cord. Depression is caused by a combination of the effects of nitrous oxide and the lowered oxygen content that occurs as pure nitrous oxide displaces oxygen from the lungs with each succeeding inhalation of the gas.

Tragedy can occur very quickly. Long-term exposure (several minutes) is not necessary before death occurs. Sudden, prolonged exposure to high levels of nitrous oxide, or a series of inhalations (without breathing clean air between inhalations) can result in death. The length of this action can be measured in seconds. Since the narcotic effect of nitrous oxide is very brief (several seconds) abusers tend to follow this repetitive action pattern.

If a person remains conscious and stops breathing the nitrous oxide, recovery (full consciousness and alertness) can occur within minutes. A person who loses consciousness, however, and continues to inhale a pure gas is most likely to die. Death usually occurs when abusers, in their attempt to achieve a higher state of euphoria, breathe pure nitrous oxide in a confined space — in a small room, inside an automobile or other vehicle cab, or by placing their head inside a plastic bag.

If death does not occur, the person who suffers from these symptoms may recover from all of them. The debilitating process is reversible, although some people have experienced permanent loss of balance.

Nitrous Oxide Abuse

Abuse of nitrous oxide as an inhalant is on the rise, as is evidenced by the increased media attention to the subject. Its abuse has grown significantly at concert venues and on college campuses. Dealers will typically fill balloons with nitrous oxide and sell them. Police and other enforcement officials have found empty and/or discarded cylinders at the end of concerts. In some cases, dealers have removed required labels that identify cylinder contents and that provide information about safe use.

While most of the publicity regarding nitrous oxide abuse focuses on its occurrence at concerts, nitrous oxide abuse for recreational purposes is equally prevalent among individuals and in small group settings. Theft of cylinders has made nitrous oxide available to people who are seeking the euphoric qualities of the gas, but who are unaware of the hazards of abusing nitrous oxide. People typically steal the cylinders from distributors or legitimate users or falsely represent themselves as legitimate users.