THE UK has banned the recreational use of nitrous oxide – known as laughing gas – threatening offenders with time behind bars.
It's part of the government's efforts to crack down on anti-social behaviour.
Now a class C drug, using nitrous oxide outside of approved medical settings to get high could land repeat users in prison for up to two years. They could also face fines and community sentences.
But the drug will still be available for legitimate uses, such as in maternity wards to relieve the pain of mums in labour or for catering.
Known as 'laughing gas', the drug is known to produce temporary feelings of euphoria. But it could also be dangerous to users' health, causing lingering and debilitating effects such as nerve and spine damage.
Here's everything you need to know about the gas and its health dangers – both short and long term.
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What is nitrous oxide?
Nitrous oxide, also referred to as NOS or 'hippy crack', is colourless and sweet-tasting gas that's commonly used for pain relief in medical and dental settings.
It can help reduce pain during childbirth when it's mixed with oxygen, what's known as 'gas and air'.
It can also used to produce whipped cream.
Sold in small metal canisters, nitrous oxide has been dubbed 'laughing gas' for its recreational use.
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When transferred to a container such as a balloon and inhaled, it can cause a short lived rush of euphoria and happiness that lasts a few minutes at most.
It can also make users feel like they're floating or cause them to experience hallucinations.
But these temporary feelings of elation can come at a cost.
Short term side effects of nitrous oxide
Some common side effects from inhaling the gas are dizziness, nausea, disorientation, loss of balance and weakness in legs, according to a study on its risks published to the National Library of Medicine.
Nitrous oxide can impair memory and thinking, the research mentioned. Some users might also feel anxious or paranoid.
Then there's the issue how people take it.
According to the Alcohol and Drug Foundation (ADF), the gas from nitrous oxide bulbs is intensely cold, sometimes as low as minus 40 degrees Celsius.
Inhaling directly from the canister or crackers – handheld devices used to 'crack' open canister – can cause frostbite on the nose, lips and throat, even the vocal cords.
The icy chill of the gas canisters can also cause cold burns to the hands.
"As the gas is also under constant pressure, it can cause ruptures in lung tissue when inhaled directly from these containers," ADF went on.
It added faulty NOS dispensers can explode and cause harm.
It's also very possible to have too much laughing gas.
According to the ADF, one sign that you've overdosed on the happy gas is a drop in blood pressure that can cause fainting or asphyxia – this is when the body is deprived of oxygen.
Some people also might develop an irregular heartbeat or seizures.
Long term health harms of nitrous oxide
A report published by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs earlier this year made note of serious long term health issues that can arise from repeated use of hippy crack.
Heavy use of laughing gas can lead to a lack of vitamin B12. Severe deficiency can lead to serious nerve damage, causing tingling and numbness in the fingers and toes.
Kerry-Anne Donaldson, 26, from London, was left wheelchair-bound after her laughing gas addiction caused numbness in her legs, which lead to her being unable to move them.
Lack of B12 can also cause damage to the spinal cord, according to the report, which noted "an apparent rise" in people using nitrous oxide who had suffered "degeneration of the spinal cord", both in the UK and globally.
It even said that the Royal London Hospital had reported diagnosing and treating one such case every nine days on average.
"This can cause serious and potentially permanent disability but is treatable if recognised early," the report authors noted.
"The most common early symptoms of neurological harms are tingling and numbness in the hands or feet."
The report also said that calls to the National Poisons Information Service about nitrous oxide use had been "increasing steeply in recent years".
The service received 85 calls in 2022, compared to 15 in 2018.
According to the report, frequent and prolonged use of nitrous oxide has been linked to thromboembolic events – this means a blood clot has gotten stuck and caused an obstruction.
The so-called laughing gas has also resulted in deaths.
Between 2001 and 2020, there were here were 56 deaths in England and Wales where nitrous oxide was mentioned on the death certificate, according to data from the Office of National Statistics.
Most (45) occurred after 2010.
Deaths associated with NOS tend to occur "due to secondary effects rather than the direct toxic effect of the gas", according to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.
It mentioned causes such as hypoxia – where body tissues are deprived of oxygen flow -and sudden cardiac arrhythmia, which was less common.
Scotland and Northern Ireland don't have publicly available data on deaths due to nitrous oxide use.
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The ADF listed a few health issues that can be caused by heavy use of nitrous oxide:
- Memory loss
- Ringing or buzzing in the ears
- Numbness in the hands or feet
- Limb spasms
- Potential birth defects (if used during pregnancy)
- Weakened immune system
- Disruption to reproductive systems
- Psychological dependence
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