Nitrous oxide, a substance found in many dental offices for use during dental procedures like extractions or minor oral surgery, is quickly becoming popular as a recreational drug among teens and young adults. Quick, cheap, and legal to obtain, it is often the drug of choice in clubs, at concerts, and at parties among those who want a quick high but do not want to use harder drugs. The ease of obtaining the drug gives the impression that it is harmless to use. However, inhaling noz can have significant consequences for youth.
What is Nitrous Oxide?
Nitrous oxide is a gas consisting of both oxygen and nitrogen. Nitrous oxide is also referred to as laughing gas when used in the medical and dental fields. There it is a pain reliever and can also be administered to calm an anxious patient. It is typically administered during dental procedures as an alternative to general anesthesia or other forms of sedation.
On the street, nitrous oxide is also called whippets, whip-its, hippie crack, cream chargers, shoot the breeze, NO, nitrous, NOX, and buzz bomb. The street form of the drug is typically purchased as canisters of nitrous oxide used to fill reusable whipped cream canisters.
What Happens When You Inhale Noz?
When inhaled, the blood vessels become dilated, especially in the lungs. It can cause the legs and arms to feel tingly. A person might also feel warm or like they are floating. Their vision might be blurred and they may feel lightheaded, dizzy, or like they are in a dream-like state.
Many people who use nitrous oxide, especially in dental settings, describe the drug as causing a pleasurable “happy drunk” feeling. However, some people might feel weak, tired, uncoordinated, sweaty, or numb.
At the dentist’s office, nitrous oxide is administered under the care of trained professionals. A patient’s blood pressure, heart rate, and other vital signs are continually monitored and the laughing gas dose can be adjusted. Once the nitrous oxide is discontinued, the patient quickly recovers and most experience no long-term or ill effects. Patients may feel dizzy, floaty, or disoriented when the laughing gas is administered. When used in this manner, nitrous oxide is considered relatively safe.
When used as a recreational drug, however, the story is much different. Whippets are more potent and can be more dangerous than the nitrous oxide administered in the dentist’s office. With no way to monitor vital signs, users can quickly experience unintended or concerning side effects.
Each high typically lasts one to two minutes. However, depending on the user’s age, weight, frequency of noz use, amount used, and the person’s health status, the length of the high can vary. In addition, nitrous oxide can interact with other drugs or alcohol that you are taking, changing the length of the high and the symptoms experienced.
How Does Nitrous Oxide Work?
Researchers are still determining the exact mechanisms that cause nitrous oxide to affect the brain. It is likely that nitrous oxide deprives the brain of much-needed oxygen. As a biological survival response, once the brain is deprived of oxygen, euphoria sets in and biological functions slow in an attempt to preserve energy. This means that blood flow and nerve reactions could slow down, resulting in tingly sensations, depressed senses of touch, hearing and pain, and impaired thinking. The heart begins to beat faster to get oxygen back to the brain and other vital organs as soon as possible.
How Are Whippets Used?
Whippets can be obtained legally over the counter and online as canisters of nitrous oxide used for filling whipped cream canisters. The nitrous oxide used in these cases is food grade rather than medical grade.
Some people open the whippet canisters and inhale the gas. They may put a balloon on the end of the charger, allowing the balloon to fill with the NO2. Then, they put the balloon to their mouths and inhale the gas. Some also inhale the gas directly from the whippet canister after puncturing a hole in the top of the cartridge. They may also inhale the gas directly from the can of whipped cream.
Because the gas is an inhalant, which is the same category as paint, markers, glue, and solvents, users huff the gas to achieve a high. Whippet gas is colorless, tasteless, and has a mild odor that some describe as sweet.
Automotive-grade nitrous oxide also exists, but it contains sulfur dioxide, making it extremely dangerous if inhaled. The sulfur dioxide also has an unpleasant odor and can harm the lungs. Finally, some people inhale nitrous oxide from Whiteout bottles – the substance that was commonly used to correct typos when typewriters are utilized.
While some use only whippets, it is not uncommon to see people using nitrous oxide in combination with alcohol, illicit drugs, or prescription medication in an attempt to alter, extend, or enhance the high. Typically, when noz is used in combination with other substances, “party” drugs, such as alcohol, LSD, cannabis, ketamine, shrooms, or salvia are used.
Combining whippets with other drugs or alcohol can be a deadly choice. When multiple substances alter the body’s ability to transport and use oxygen, suffocation or cardiovascular problems can occur. Some drugs can potentially increase a person’s blood pressure or heart rate above what whippets already does. Finally, combining drugs can cause confusion, extreme fatigue, reduced concentration, feelings of being disconnected from one’s body, and more intense euphoria. For some, this intense euphoria and disconnection lead to making dangerous choices or engaging in risky behaviors.
How Common is Nitrous Oxide Abuse?
Because it is easy, inexpensive, and legal to obtain whippets, nitrous oxide is a popular recreational and party drug, especially among teens and young adults who are looking for a quick high. It can be obtained over the counter from grocery stores or online. In some cases, users can even obtain the drugs from clubs or concerts. This can make it seem like whippets are safe and harmless. However, nothing could be further from the truth.
The ease of which people can obtain whippets and the rapid onset and end to the high can make it difficult to know exactly how many people abuse whippets. However, it is estimated that more than 12 million people in the United States have tried the drug, with many people who use it first trying it around 16 or 17 years of age.
While whippets themselves are legal to purchase and own, inhaling or huffing the gas is illegal. In some states, it is also illegal for minors to purchase the whippet canisters. Therefore, some law enforcement agencies are attempting to crack down on parties and concerts selling nitrous oxide.
In 2013, federal employees raided a southern California ring of businesses caught selling nitrous oxide for recreational purposes after a 15 month investigation. The sweep involved 17 businesses and nine delivery vehicles.
What Are the Side Effects of Whippets?
While dental nitrous oxide typically only causes pain relief, feelings of euphoria or floating, and dizziness, the effects of noz can be a bit more intense. When using the drug recreationally, the brain is deprived of oxygen and users feel what is often referred to as a head rush. Their limbs begin tingling and feeling heavy, which can lead to a lack of balance or coordination. Extreme giddiness and euphoria is also likely.
More serious side effects of whippets can include:
- Increased heart rate
- Loss of awareness
- Loss of coordination
- Falls and head injuries
- Disassociation (feeling disconnected from your body or the world around you)
- B12 deficiencies
- Arm and leg weakness
- Impared memory
- Brain damage
- Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome
Recently, there have been several high-profile incidents of whippet abuse in California. In 2012, actress Demi Moore was hospitalized after experiencing a reduction in consciousness and some seizure-like symptoms following whippets use. In 2013, a Claremont McKenna College student died after inhaling gas from several whippets canisters. Also in California, two teenagers were killed in a high-speed automobile accident and an autopsy showed traces of nitrous oxide in their blood.
How Can Noz Affect You Long-Term?
Like most inhalants, long-term use of noz can be dangerous. Each time you use nitrous oxide, your brain is deprived of oxygen. Without oxygen, your brain cannot function properly and with long-term use, you could experience damage to the parts of the brain responsible for memory, thinking, movement, and your body’s basic functions.
When large amounts of the drug are used over a lengthy period of time, especially when huffed through a mask or bag, you could experience life-threatening brain damage. Depending on the extent of the brain damage, death could result within minutes.
In addition, all inhalant use runs the risk of Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome. This serious and deadly condition is the result of inhalant abuse, but can even occur the first time someone huffs. With SSDS, once the person huffs and oxygen deprivation begins, the heart simply stops beating. When this happens, sudden death is likely. The onset of SSDS is rapid, leaving little to no time for the person to be revived.
Can You Get Dependent on Nitrous Oxide?
The properties of nitrous oxide itself are not physically addictive. The body does not become physically dependent on whippets. However, some people become psychologically dependent on the drug, becoming addicted to the high itself and continuing to use whippets in order to experience highs. This can lead to agitation and searching out the drug even after one knows that using it is harmful.
Is Whippet Withdrawal Real?
Because nitrous oxide does not cause physical dependence, there is no withdrawal associated with stopping the drug. However, psychological dependence can make it more difficult for some to stop using whippets. Thus, it is often recommended that those who abuse whippets seek treatment, especially with professionals that can treat any underlying mental health issues that are contributing to substance use.
How Is Nitrous Oxide Addiction Treated?
Most people who use only nitrous oxide without other drugs do not need inpatient detox because there is no physical withdrawal. However, because the person does have an addiction, treatment is still needed to help address the underlying causes of the issue.
Any treatment for whippets abuse will likely involve addressing the underlying mental issues that caused you to self-medicate, including depression, anxiety, or trauma reactions. In inpatient or outpatient rehab, patients typically attend both individual and group counseling to learn safe and healthy coping skills to deal with symptoms of mental illness, as well as with overwhelming or stressful situations. Therapy can also help you develop healthy behaviors for when you go out with friends or attend parties or concerts.
If you or a friend are struggling with whippets use, reach out for help. Getting treatment can help you end your psychological dependence on nitrous oxide and prevent long-term damage to your brain and heart. We can also help you learn healthy and safe coping strategies to deal with situations in your life that may be overwhelming or stressful. Call us today.
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