What is nitrous oxide?

Quick Answer
Nitrous oxide (N2O) is an inorganic volatile gas that produces chemical vapors.
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History of Use

Nitrous oxide was first synthesized in the late eighteenth century. By the mid-nineteenth century, it was being used by dentists for pain relief and as an anesthetic. Because of the euphoria it induces, it came to be known as laughing gas. Today, it is used in medical settings for minor procedures that do not require loss of consciousness and to augment other anesthetics and sedatives.

Along with other inhalants, nitrous oxide is used as a recreational drug to induce a psychoactive (mind-altering) effect. Most first-time and frequent users are minors. The most common sources for nitrous oxide are whipped-cream aerosols, for which nitrous oxide is the propellant, and whippits, which are small and tapered cylinders containing nitrous oxide that are used to pressurize reusable, commercial or home-use, whipped-cream dispensers.

Effects and Potential Risks

In clinical settings, nitrous oxide has few adverse effects. Recreational use can have serious consequences, however. Abusers inhale nitrous oxide to obtain a rapid high similar to that obtained when using alcohol. The initial euphoria, lightheadedness, and disinhibition are soon followed by agitation, then drowsiness.

Abusers must inhale frequently to maintain a high. With intense, repeated inhaling, the nitrous oxide replaces oxygen in the lungs. The result is hypoxia , which deprives the whole body, including the brain, of its needed supply of oxygen. An abuser can lose consciousness, stop breathing, and even die. Abusers may inhale the nitrous oxide through a plastic or paper bag or other such device, which can lead to suffocation. Nitrous oxide can damage the outer layer and deeper tissue of the nose, mouth, windpipe, and lungs.

Long-term use of nitrous oxide can break down myelin, a fatty tissue that surrounds and protects some nerve fibers. Loss of myelin can result in muscle spasms and tremors and permanent problems with coordination, walking, and talking. Inhaling nitrous oxide while under the influence of alcohol or ketamine can cause brain toxicity and death.


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