Nitrous Oxide (Whippet) Abuse, Addiction, and Treatment
Nitrous oxide, also sometimes known as “laughing gas,” is used in medicine for its sedative and anesthetic (pain prevention) properties. Joseph Priestley, an English chemist, and multidisciplinary scholar, first synthesized nitrous oxide, which has the chemical formula N2O, in 1772.1 After Priestley’s initial discovery of this substance, fellow chemist Humphry Davy performed various tests on the substance, including breathing the gas alone, with oxygen, and with air.1 Through this testing, it became clear that nitrous oxide had psychogenic properties, including as a sedative and anesthetic (pain-preventer).2
At first, nitrous oxide was not used for its medicinal properties; it was sold recreationally as “laughing gas.” However, it was established for use in dentistry in the mid-1860s to relieve discomfort from tooth extractions and other painful dental procedures.2 By the 1880s, it was used for anesthesia during labor and childbirth.3
Today, nitrous oxide is still used in dentistry, during labor and childbirth, as well as in emergency medicine.1-3 When used medicinally, nitrous oxide is delivered with 30-70% oxygen so a person is never breathing in 100% nitrous oxide.3 Breathing in 100% nitrous oxide displaces oxygen from the lungs and can result in asphyxiation, damage the body’s organs, and even death.
Nitrous oxide is sometimes misused recreationally for its euphoric, pleasurable and hallucinogenic effects.4 However, inhaling nitrous oxide outside of medical settings can be dangerous and even deadly, particularly when used heavily.5 Although it’s not common, repeated use of inhalants like nitrous oxide and whippets can also result in addiction, or substance use disorder.6
Short-Term Effects and Dangers of Nitrous Oxide Misuse
When used medically, nitrous oxide results in sedation and analgesia. Side effects of nitrous oxide may include:10
- Brief euphoria.
- Slurred speech.
- Lack of coordination.
Individuals misusing nitrous oxide can experience a wide variety of effects. Cognitive impairment, bizarre and inappropriate behavior, visual hallucinations (seeing things that aren’t there), and delusions (believing things that aren’t correct or true) have all been reported.11
Frequent or heavy nitrous oxide misuse can be quite dangerous and even deadly. Nitrous oxide has a rapid onset of intoxication but it also wears off quickly, leading some people to repeat use, sometimes at higher concentrations.4 Frequent, high-dose use of nitrous oxide displaces oxygen available in the lungs, which can result in asphyxiation that leads to brain damage or death.8
Nitrous oxide can lower the vitamin B12 levels in individuals who misuse it heavily or for prolonged periods. A deficiency in vitamin B12 can cause damage to the spinal cord and result in gait (the way a person walks) abnormalities as well as peripheral neuropathy, which causes tingling, weakness, and pain in the hands and feet.5,12
Regular or heavy misuse of nitrous oxide is also associated with hypoxemia (not enough oxygen in the blood), which can lead to hypoxia (tissue and organs throughout the body don’t get enough oxygen), aspiration, seizures, irregular heartbeat, and pneumomediastinum (when air gets trapped in the chest cavity between the lungs).8
How Is An Addiction to Inhalants Treated?
Professional treatment is available if you or a loved one struggle with a substance use disorder as a result of nitrous oxide misuse or use of inhalants or other substances. Treatment may include :13
Detox. Detoxification allows an individual’s body to rid itself of substances and experience withdrawal symptoms, while being monitored by medical and mental healthcare staff around the clock. Medically managed drug detoxification ensures the individual’s safety and keeps them as comfortable as possible.
Inpatient treatment. Individuals undergoing inpatient rehab for drug addiction stay overnight at a hospital, clinic, or treatment center, where they participate in individual and group counseling, psychiatric care, and education. Additionally, individuals in inpatient rehab are supervised around the clock and have access to 24-hour support and care by medical professionals.
Outpatient treatment. Outpatient care offers similar services to inpatient treatment but with less supervision—individuals live at home, in sober living, or another housing facility. Outpatient care can allow individuals to continue working, going to school, and tending to other responsibilities while receiving treatment during specific, clinic-based appointments.
Behavioral therapies. Research indicates that individuals who seek treatment for whippet and other inhalant abuse might find behavioral therapies helpful. Many treatment facilities use a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which helps clients to recognize and cope with feelings that lead them to misuse nitrous oxide. CBT draws on a client’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to understand why they are using drugs, and how to change these behaviors.
Motivational incentives may also be used to treat an inhalant use disorder. In this approach, the treatment provider “incentivizes” the individual to remain abstinent from using inhalants by offering small prizes or vouchers to reinforce positive behavior.6
While nitrous oxide misuse or using whippets or other inhalants can be dangerous and even deadly, treatment is available for people who want to quit but are having a hard time doing so. Treatment looks different for everyone, and it is important to find an option that is right for you based on your individual needs and preferences.