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Nitrous Oxide Abuse And Addiction

Joseph Sitarik, DO

Medically reviewed by

Joseph Sitarik, DO

January 17, 2019

Nitrous oxide is an inhalant that is found in several common household products. The abuse potential for nitrous oxide is very high and can lead to several adverse and even permanent health effects if abused for a long period of time.

Nitrous oxide belongs to a class of recreational drugs known as inhalants. Inhalants can be dangerous because they can be commonly found in substances in the home or workplace. Because inhalants are often contained in substances which are readily at hand, many people may not realize they are dangerous or easily abused. Inhalants may also be abused more often by younger people—children and adolescents.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) explains that inhalants are the only class of substance abused more by younger than by older teens. Inhalants are one of the only classes of drugs that are rarely administered by any other method than inhalation.

What Is Nitrous Oxide?

Nitrous Oxide is a colorless, nonflammable gas with a sweet smell. It is commonly called “laughing gas” and may be used by dentists or doctors during procedures or surgeries. MedScape states that nitrous oxide has other uses. It is used in non-medical ways, such as in the car racing industry and for food processing.

NIDA states that, of the gasses abused through inhalation, nitrous oxide is the most commonly abused as it is found in many household products. These may include whipped cream cans, products used for car racing, such as those that boost octane levels, and other aerosol cans.

Understanding Nitrous Oxide Abuse

Because of the variety of uses for nitrous oxide, it is readily available, which makes it a high risk potential for abuse. As it is a gaseous substance, nitrous oxide is abused through inhalation, commonly called “huffing.” Inhalant abuse or huffing refers to intentionally breathing in the vapors of a substance for the purpose of getting “high.”

Side Effects Of Nitrous Oxide Abuse

As is true with abuse of many inhalants, nitrous oxide abuse can cause staggering effects to health, both short-term and long-term.

Short-term effects of nitrous oxide may include:

  • delusions
  • dizziness
  • headache
  • drowsiness
  • euphoria
  • feeling of light-headedness
  • hallucinations
  • lack of coordination
  • slurred speech

Long-term effects of nitrous oxide may include:

  • brain damage
  • bone marrow damage
  • heart damage
  • kidney damage
  • liver damage
  • lung damage
  • hypoxia: a condition that occurs when there is not sufficient oxygen reaching a person’s tissues
  • vitamin B12 deficiency—which may lead to nerve damage

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Can People Become Addicted To Nitrous Oxide?

It’s rare to form an addiction to inhalants, but it can happen. This may be in part because nitrous oxide, like many inhalants, can be extremely dangerous to abuse multiple times. As Drug Free World reports, those who abuse inhalants may experience overwhelming urges to keep abusing them. When attempting to stop abuse, or when a person no longer has access to the inhalant, he or she may also experience withdrawal symptoms.

Signs Of Nitrous Oxide Addiction

Two of the largest signs of any addiction are forming a tolerance to the substance (needing more of the substance to achieve the same effect) and experiencing withdrawal when not taking it. Other signs of addiction can include withdrawing from friends and family, not participating in activities which would normally be important to a person, or engaging in risky behavior to obtain or abuse the substance. Some of the common withdrawal symptoms associated with nitrous oxide are:

  • agitation
  • chills
  • convulsions
  • extreme sweating
  • a headache
  • muscle cramps
  • tremors

Risks Of Nitrous Oxide Addiction

One of the biggest dangers of nitrous oxide abuse and addiction is that many people are unaware of the risks associated with it, especially young people. As the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition (NIPC) explains, “many parents are in the dark regarding the popularity and dangers of inhalant use.”

It tends to be younger people who are most at risk. Inhalants are inexpensive, easy to obtain, and may provide one of the easiest ways to get high. The NIPC reports that inhalants are one of the most commonly abused substances in the country; they are as highly abused as marijuana, and perhaps much more dangerous.

Inhalants are dangerous because they produce the same effect as anesthetics: they slow body function. As with many substances, the degree of effect of inhalants depends on the person taking them. A person may experience impaired function, lack of or lowered inhibition, or even faint (lose consciousness).

Perhaps one of the biggest risks associated with inhalant abuse and addiction is a condition called Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome. The NIPC explains this means: “the user can die the 1st, 10th or 100th time he or she uses an inhalant.”

Who Is At Risk Of Nitrous Oxide Addiction?

No one is exempt from the risk of addiction. That is why prevention of abuse is so important. However, nitrous oxide abuse and subsequent addiction are most common among adolescents, especially younger teens. The NIPC reports that one in five students entering the eighth grade will have abused inhalants. Further, “statistics show that young, white males have the highest usage rates” as do Hispanic and American Indian populations.

Nitrous Oxide Addiction Treatment

While early prevention is perhaps the surest method to avoid abuse and addiction, treatment may be necessary for those already addicted to nitrous oxide. However, when you realize a person is addicted, it is important to remain calm, especially if you come to this realization while the person is high.

People who are high on inhalants and become agitated may experience hallucinations, have violent outbursts, or, in extreme cases, undergo heart dysfunction which can be fatal. Treatment can begin after a person receives necessary medical care, if needed.

Inpatient rehab centers can provide professional support and care. For some, addiction may require more than outpatient counseling. Rehab centers can make that difference, and we at RehabCenter.net can connect you with some of the most effective rehab facilities. Addicted individuals may require medication, behavioral therapy, group or individual counseling, or other treatment methods. Some, all, or a combination of these methods are available at our rehab centers.

Over one million people abused inhalants for the purpose of getting high in the United States in 2016 alone. With youth affected most by nitrous oxide abuse and addiction, prevention is key to help dissuade youth from suffering some of the more severe long-term effects of abuse or overdose. Contact us today to learn more about our rehab centers, speak with our experts, and to be connected with resources.

Drug Free World - Are Inhalants Addictive?

MedScape - Nitrous Oxide Administration

National Inhalant Prevention Coalition - About Inhalants

National Institute On Drug Abuse - DrugFacts: Inhalants

National Institute On Drug Abuse - What Are Inhalants?

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