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Is Nitrous Oxide Addictive? Everything You Need to Know

Nitrous oxide (N2O), used in the medical realm since the mid-1860s, is also used recreationally. The lockdowns associated with the COVID-19 pandemic caused and continue to cause serious and significant mental health issues, which many have attempted to mitigate via the recreational use of N2O.1 As a result, its abuse has skyrocketed.

In fact, the abuse of N2O has become so prevalent that the substance has been categorized in the UK as a Class C drug, making it illegal to possess or sell for recreational purposes. Unfortunately, there is still no official legislation governing N2O’s use or sale in the United States.

What Is Nitrous Oxide?

Nitrous oxide (N2O), also called “laughing gas,” “hippy crack,” and “sweet air,” is a colorless gas typically used as an anesthetic in medical and dental applications.

N2O is also used for pain reduction during childbirth, as well as in the food industry as a propellant, such as in whipped cream cans. In the racing industry, the gas is known as NOS, which delivers a powerful horsepower boost to gasoline engines.

Small metal canisters used to charge whipped cream canisters are typically purchased by recreational users, who inhale the gas out of balloons.

Nitrous Oxide’s Potential for Addiction

When inhaled, nitrous oxide can result in a number of effects, including relaxation, dizziness, and light-headedness. Mild hallucination, as well as a feeling of enlightenment and escape are among the commonly reported positive experiences among N2O users.

N2O’s effects are short-lived, which can lead to repeated use and the consumption of multiple doses in order to achieve the desired high. As well, the longer that misuse continues, the higher amount of nitrous oxide that’ll be needed to achieve a high.

The effects of nitrous oxide can cause psychological addiction, which can make abstaining from the substance difficult. Abstinence can be particularly difficult for those experiencing depression, anxiety, or other mental health challenges.

The Dangerous Side Effects of Nitrous Oxide Abuse

Sad lonely depressed unhappy hopeless woman

In medical applications, nitrous oxide is mixed with oxygen and administered by an anesthesiologist, who carefully controls the rate at which it is delivered. This prevents the patient from becoming asphyxiated, while allowing for the relief of pain and anxiety. None of this occurs with recreational use, in which N2O is consumed in full concentration.

When inhaled recreationally, nitrous oxide enters the lungs and is quickly delivered to the bloodstream, and then to the brain. The lungs depress in response to the gas in the bloodstream, which slows the carbon dioxide-oxygen exchange and, ultimately, the oxygen supply to the red blood cells, brain, and lungs 

Therefore, the consumption of N2O can cause a range of dangerous side effects, which include rapid heart rate, unconsciousness, seizures, brain damage, anxiety, asphyxiation, and death.

Long-Term Effects

Long-term exposure to nitrous oxide can result in vitamin B12 deficiency. This is of significant importance, because vitamin B12 plays a key role in the maintenance of the nervous system, specifically the production of myelin, which is the protective coating present on nerve endings and the surface of the spinal cord (called the “myelin sheath”).2

Without the myelin sheath, the spinal cord and nerve endings are exposed, leaving them vulnerable to irreparable damage. A person with nerve damage can experience symptoms that are mild to unbearable. These symptoms include:

  • Tingling and numbness in the extremities
  • Weakness in the legs and arms
  • Difficulty walking
  • Pain in the extremities

Misused nitrous oxide and the development of blood clots has also recently been identified as a long-term effect, as has the development of coronary artery disease.3

As well, a deficiency in vitamin B12 that goes untreated can also result in serious long-term effects such as:

  • Sexual difficulties
  • Loss of balance
  • Problems with the bladder or bowel
  • Worsening vision loss
  • Slowed reflexes
  • Irritability
  • Paranoia
  • Symptoms like those associated with dementia
  • Loss of smell4

Getting Help for N2O Addiction

Psychotherapist writing notes, giving diagnosis to emotional man

The dangers of nitrous oxide misuse and addiction seem to be downplayed by some medical professionals and less publicized than they are for drugs of other types. In fact, some sources refer to the recreational use of N2O as a “safe” means of getting high. It’s because of this that many who use or even become addicted to nitrous oxide do not seek medical or addiction help. As well, a person who is experiencing any of the aforementioned symptoms of nitrous oxide use may not seek help until their symptoms have become unbearable and advanced.

The reality is that nitrous oxide is a dangerous substance to consume for recreational use, and it is an addictive substance that can have many serious and long-lasting consequences for mental and physical health.

Treatment Options Are Available

The fact that nitrous oxide misuse has now become problematic has been well-documented. Although the recreational use of N2O has only recently become widespread, this particular addiction has many treatment options.

For example, cravings and withdrawal symptoms can be treated with lamotrigine, a drug typically used to treat bipolar disorder and seizures. However, these and other treatments must be administered as soon as possible to successfully manage cravings, withdrawals, and relapses. A person experiencing N2O addiction must also have a reliable support system in place to achieve recovery.

Family-owned Adelante Recovery Centers offer full-service treatment for nitrous oxide addiction  and other drug abuse in a safe and supportive environment, beginning with medically assisted detox and admission into a residential inpatient treatment program that includes holistic treatments like group therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and 12-step meetings.

Our residential treatment programs feature luxury accommodation, chef-prepared meals, and an immersive recovery process. If you or someone you love is experiencing nitrous oxide misuse, addiction, and any of the cardiovascular, neurological, or other symptoms mentioned above, help is available. Contact Adelante Recovery Centers to speak with an admissions specialist: (949) 427-9099.


  1. https://www.frontiersin.org/journals/public-health/articles/10.3389/fpubh.2022.854977/full
  2. https://www.acep.org/toxicology/newsroom/jun2021/nitrous-oxide-misuse-and-abuse/
  3. https://www.acep.org/toxicology/newsroom/jun2021/nitrous-oxide-misuse-and-abuse/
  4. https://www.webmd.com/diet/b12-deficiency-left-untreated

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