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Nitrous Oxide “Whippet” Abuse And Addiction

Dr. Ted Bender, Ph.D., LCDC

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Ted Bender, Ph.D., LCDC

April 25, 2019

Whippets are small cylinders of nitrous oxide (“laughing gas”) that cause a euphoric feeling when inhaled. Abusing whippets can lead to severe physical consequences like muscle spasms, incontinence, and paralysis. Whippets are addictive and carry a risk of overdose.

Nitrous oxide “whippets” are popular substances of abuse in nightclubs, and are most commonly used by children and adolescents. They are legal, inexpensive, and easy to obtain (though it is not legal to use them to get high).

Whippets are classified as inhalants because they contain a gas that is breathed into the mouth. This is often called “huffing.”

Compared to other inhalants, such as toxic solvents, gases, and aerosols, whippets are thought to be relatively harmless, but whippet abuse can have severe health consequences.

What Is Nitrous Oxide?

Nitrous oxide is a colorless gas used commonly during dental procedures and childbirth. Also known as “laughing gas,” it has an anti-anxiety (anxiolytic) and pain relieving (analgesic) effect.

Besides medicinal purposes, nitrous oxide is used in race cars and as a propellant in whipped cream dispensers. One brand name for small metal cylinders of nitrous oxide is Whip-Its, from which stems a variety of slang terms like “whippit” and “whippet.”

Like many drugs of abuse, nitrous oxide produces feelings of relaxation and euphoria, as well as mind-altering (psychoactive) effects such as heightened consciousness and disconnection from reality.

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How Are Whippets Abused?

One way that people abuse whippets is inhaling the nitrous oxide directly from a whipped cream canister. Another method is using a “cracker” to release the nitrous oxide and inhaling it directly. A cracker is a metal tube with a lid that pops open the whippet when it is screwed in. The nitrous oxide is released from holes in the top of the cracker.

With this method, the metal tube can get very cold to the point of freezing a person’s fingers and lips. It also releases the nitrous oxide at dangerously high pressure.

An alternative way of using whippets is to use the cracker to fill a balloon with nitrous oxide, then inhale the substance from the balloon. This allows it to warm up and gives the person more control over the pressure.

Some people release nitrous oxide into a plastic bag, which works similarly to a balloon. This can be more dangerous, as there have been cases where people have put their heads inside of the bag to inhale the gas and have suffocated.

Dangers Of Nitrous Oxide “Whippet” Abuse

When nitrous oxide enters the body, oxygen does not. If a person inhales too much nitrous oxide, the brain and body tissues will not get enough oxygen, which can lead to hypoxia. This is a serious condition that can result in brain and muscle damage.

Abusing nitrous oxide affects the brain in other ways too. Over time, it can cause memory loss, depression, and psychosis.

It also depletes vitamin B12, an essential vitamin for healthy nerves and blood cells. This can lead to long-term physical effects, such as:

  • lower-body paralysis
  • incontinence
  • numbness of hands or feet
  • spasms of limbs
  • weak immune system
  • ringing in ears
  • reproductive dysfunction

Vitamin B12 is sometimes given to individuals to reverse the long-term consequences of nitrous oxide abuse. In some cases, this has healed the damage, but in others, it has been unsuccessful.

Whippet abuse can have immediate adverse effects as well. These include:

  • sedation
  • numbness
  • loss of coordination
  • blurred vision
  • confusion
  • dizziness
  • fatigue
  • sweating

Can You Overdose On Nitrous Oxide?

It is possible to overdose on nitrous oxide. The negative side effects are more likely to occur when a higher amount of gas is consumed.

The high from whippets only last a few minutes. This prompts many people to use more than one cylinder to maintain the euphoric feeling, which raises the risk of overdose.

If enough nitrous oxide is inhaled at once, it can cause a person’s blood pressure to drop, and they may lose consciousness. It can also cause a heart attack or death.

Mixing Nitrous Oxide With Other Drugs

Often, people who abuse nitrous oxide take other drugs as well. While there are not certain combinations that are known to be lethal, abusing whippets with central nervous system depressants can increase their effects. This may lead to extreme sedation and dangerous respiratory depression.

Using whippets with stimulant drugs may increase the risk of adverse effects on the heart, such as a heart attack. Stimulant drugs raise a person’s heart rate and blood pressure. Taking them with nitrous oxide can put even more strain on the heart.

Are Whippets Addictive?

Whippets are not known to cause physical dependence or withdrawal symptoms, but they can be psychologically addictive.

This begins when a person abuses nitrous oxide regularly. Their body develops a tolerance to it, which leads them to consume more of the substance to achieve the same sense of euphoria.

This can continue indefinitely—the body will keep increasing tolerance levels and the person abusing whippets may continue to increase their consumption.

Signs Of Nitrous Oxide Abuse And Addiction

A 2016 case study followed a 23-year-old male who struggled with polysubstance abuse and was found dead in his apartment with “thousands of nitrous oxide cylinders.” Someone who is regularly abusing nitrous oxide may go through a dozen cylinders per day, which is hard to hide.

If a person has a professional whipped cream dispenser in their home, it is not necessarily a sign of whippet abuse. But if they have no interest in baking and show other signs of abuse, this may be an additional indicator.

Other signs of nitrous oxide abuse and addiction may be:

  • balloons, especially if they have a chemical smell
  • whippet crackers (two-piece metal tubes)
  • state of euphoria or sedation
  • a lot of time spent inhaling nitrous oxide
  • needing whippets to get through the day
  • using multiple whippet cylinders per day
  • trying to cut back but being unable to
  • disinterest in social activities
  • secretive behavior
  • financial strain

Treatment For Nitrous Oxide “Whippet” Addiction

Because whippets are psychologically addictive, it can be very difficult for a person to reduce how often they use them, or to stop using them altogether. An inpatient drug rehab program can help.

Inpatient addiction treatment focuses on changing thoughts that lead to destructive behavior such as inhalant abuse. This can be done through behavioral therapy, counseling, support groups, and various other therapies, which may include art, recreation, or yoga.

The goal is to teach stress management skills, foster positive relationships, and improve overall health. An inpatient program equips a person to resist relapse and lead a more meaningful life in recovery.

Alcohol and Drug Foundation - Nitrous Oxide

National Institute of Biotechnology Information - Recurrent paraparesis and death of a patient with ‘whippet’ abuse

National Institute of Biotechnology Information - Recreational nitrous oxide use: Prevalence and risks

National Institute of Biotechnology Information - Whippets, nitrous oxide, and the dangers of legal highs

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