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'Laughing gas' legal high warning

WebMD UK Health News
Medically Reviewed by Dr Farah Ahmed
male teen

14th August 2014 --Local authorities are warning against the use of nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas, as a 'legal high'.

What do we know about nitrous oxide, and what are the risks? Read our FAQs.

What is laughing gas?

Nitrous oxide is used to numb pain during medical procedures such as dental work and as pain relief during labour, but has become popular as a 'party drug'. It is often inhaled from balloons in clubs and at music festivals.

Because the gas can make a person feel relaxed, calm or euphoric, it was nicknamed laughing gas.

The drug information website Frank says the gas is also known as whippits, hippie crack or chargers.

What are the risks of laughing gas?

Used by trained professionals for medical use, nitrous oxide is safe. However, when used as a recreational drug the risks include oxygen deprivation, loss of blood pressure, fainting and heart attacks.

The gas slows down brain and body responses. A person using the gas may feel dizzy, have trouble thinking and may giggle and laugh a lot. Sounds around the person may seem distorted and they may hallucinate. The gas may cause a headache shortly after it is inhaled.

The risks are higher if the gas is inhaled in a small space, or if a lot of gas is inhaled quickly.

Several deaths have been linked to laughing gas use.

Prolonged use of laughing gas can cause anaemia, affect bone marrow and cause nerve damage. Experts from the Local Government Association say the risks become higher if the gas is combined with alcohol or other drugs.

What's the legal situation with laughing gas?

Aside from regulated medical use, nitrous oxide can be bought legally for food use, such as whipping cream and in packaging to help preserve food. It also has some use in engines.

Possession of laughing gas is not illegal, but the medicines regulator MHRA says the supply of the gas for inhalation as a recreational drug is illegal and can only be supplied in this form by a registered pharmacist.

What's being done about laughing gas?

Local authorities have been issuing warnings about the dangers of using laughing gas to try to counter the impression given by some websites and video clip sharing services that laughing gas is harmless.

Councillor Katie Hall, chair of the Local Government Association's Community Wellbeing Board says in a statement: "It is deeply disturbing that this drug, which can be highly dangerous, is still widely viewed as safe."

Essex County Council is arranging special patrols to look for laughing gas use and canisters at the V Festival and Brownstock events in the county. Donna Martin, Substance Misuse Trainer for the Drug and Alcohol Partnership says in a statement: "Just because something says it is legal doesn’t mean it is safe."

Reviewed on August 14, 2014

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