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Nitrous oxide

What is nitrous oxide?

Nitrous oxide (N2O) is a colourless, non-flammable gas with a slightly sweet odour.

N2O has several legitimate uses across different industries. It is used by dentists and medical professionals for sedation and pain relief in patients undergoing minor medical and dental procedures and is commonly referred to as 'laughing gas'. It is also a propellant for whipped cream, a food additive (E 942), an extraction solvent and can be used to enhance engine performance.

N2O is also misused as a recreational drug and is known as Balloons, Nos, Noz, Whippits, Chargers, Hippie, Hippy Crack or Happy Gas.

How it is misused

N2O is typically discharged from gas canisters into a balloon using a device called a ‘cracker’ and then inhaled from the balloon or directly into a person’s mouth. It takes effect quickly and produces brief euphoria that lasts for between one and two minutes.

Single-use finger-length canisters are the most common. They can hold around 8g of gas.

‘Super-size’ canisters are now being used to inhale N2O. These can hold up to 150 times more gas than the smaller canisters.

The law

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016, it is an offence to supply (give away or sell), intend to supply, or offer to supply Nitrous Oxide for its psychoactive effect.

Supply and/or production can:

  • get up to seven years in prison
  • an unlimited fine
  • or both

Read the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016: Government guidance for retailers

There is currently no penalty for possession unless you are in prison.

Specific exceptions apply to health care professionals in the course of their work.

Health risks

Side effects of short-term use can include dizziness, disorientation, loss of balance, impaired memory and cognition, weakness in the legs and fainting. When intoxicated, tripping, falling and other accidents may occur. They effects can occur from single use.

Repeated use can cause:

  • memory loss
  • damage of the proper formation of white blood cells (weakening the immune system)
  • a type of anaemia
  • vitamin B12 deficiency, which can cause brain and nerve damage leading to paralysis

Sudden death can occur through inhaling N2O from a plastic bag placed over the head

Useful resources

The resources below offer help and advice surrounding N2O misuse.

Change Grow Live (CGL)

Change Grow Live is a charity specialising in substance misuse and criminal justice interventions for people aged 21 years and over. Their website offers crisis information, a webchat service and a range of other online support resources if you want to cut down or stop using drugs.

Aquarius

Aquarius is a service for young people aged 25 years and under in Birmingham affected by substance misuse. They provide online information and advice, 'one-to-one' intervention, and group work. The organisation welcomes both referrals from professionals and self-referrals. You can complete the downloadable referral form and email it to youngpeople@aquarius.org.uk.

More information is on the Birmingham Young People’s Service website.

'Talk to Frank'

Talk to Frank’ gives out free facts, support and advice about a wide range of different recreational drugs. They have a detailed page dedicated to N2O.


Page last updated: 7 August 2023

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