Nitrous oxide as a narcotic

Nitrous oxide (N2O), also known as laughing gas, is a tasteless and odourless gas that is abused as an intoxicant. A high concentration of the gas can lead to severe oxygen deficiency. Prolonged use can cause permanent damage to the nervous system.

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Nitrous oxide

Nitrous oxide is commonly used as part of sedation and general anaesthesia for children and adults, but can also be used in internal combustion engines and in dispenser cartridges intended for food preparation (typically for whipping cream).

Acute danger after inhalation of nitrous oxide

The effects of nitrous oxide are short-lived and disappear within seconds to minutes after inhalation. Desired effects include slight pain relief, altered consciousness and intoxication.

High concentrations of nitrous oxide cause oxygen to be displaced in the body, which in turn causes a form of suffocation (hypoxia). This can result in serious injuries and, in the worst case, death. With abuse of nitrous oxide, there is no control of the dose inhaled, increasing the risk of suffocation. Repeated inhalation one after another increases the risk of suffocation.

Nitrous oxide from dispenser cartridges is very cold when it comes straight from the container. This can lead to frostbite to the face and respiratory tract.

Empty nitrous oxide containers in the street against a wall

Empty nitrous oxide containers found in the urban environment.

Symptoms that may occur acutely after inhalation of nitrous oxide:

  • Too little oxygen in the blood
  • Confusion
  • Lethargy/unconsciousness
  • Difficulty breathing / breathing stops
  • Cardiac arrest
  • Frostbite

First aid when nitrous oxide is used as a narcotic

  • Discontinue exposure. If there have only been mild symptoms, continued observation at the site may be considered. The person should not be left alone.
  • In the event of a loss of consciousness or other severe symptoms, contact 113.

Chronic injuries after inhalation of nitrous oxide

Long-term abuse can lead to serious nerve damage that could become permanent. Damage to tissues with rapid cell division, such as bone marrow and mucous membranes in the intestine, also occurs.

Symptoms that may occur after repeated inhalation of nitrous oxide:

  • Numbness/tingling/pain in the legs and/or arms
  • Muscle weakness
  • Permanent nerve damage
  • Effect on blood cells
  • Brain injuries

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Content provided by The Norwegian Poisons Information Centre

The Norwegian Poisons Information Centre. Nitrous oxide as a narcotic. [Internet]. Oslo: The Norwegian Directorate of Health; updated Wednesday, April 26, 2023 [retrieved Sunday, April 21, 2024]. Available from: https://www.helsenorge.no/en/poison-information/rusmidler/nitrous-oxide/

Last updated Wednesday, April 26, 2023