When you hear the words 'nitrous oxide', it may conjure up images of street racing from The Fast and the Furious or perhaps you might know it as "laughing gas" that dentists use. In the context of safety and wellbeing, nitrous oxide is better known as a recreational drug (colloquially known in Australia as 'nangs' or 'balloons') that's growing in popularity in recent years, particularly among younger people and students.

Due to the rise in nitrous oxide usage in recent years, we are going to dive deep into what exactly this drug is, what it does, and just how dangerous it can be.

What is nitrous oxide?

Nitrous oxide is a colourless gas that's commonly used as an anaesthetic by dentists and medical professions in procedural sedation during minor medical procedures that don't require a general anaesthetic. Most people probably know it as 'laughing gas' in this context.

Outside of a medical setting, nitrous oxide is used in some types of culinary equipment and in the automotive industry.

What does it do when inhaled?

In medical settings, nitrous oxide is mixed with oxygen and inhaled through a small mask that fits over your nose. You are monitored closely by healthcare professionals who take into consideration the oxygen saturations, and the heart rate by monitoring the rate and rhyme and overall consciousness. If there are any concerns, the nitrous oxide is stopped immediately and put on high flow oxygen to allow the side effects to be reduced.

In other settings, the gas is inhaled by discharging nitrous oxide cartridges either into another object (such as a balloon) or directly into the mouth. While the nitrous oxide has oxygen in it, the ratio is different compared to a medical setting and isn't regulated as it's not for proper consumption.

As for what effects that are felt when nitrous oxide is inhaled, it's important to note that it affects everyone differently due to factors such as the amount taken, the person's weight and health, past medical history, family history, the person's previous history with the drug, and if other drugs were taken at the same time.

Nitrous oxide produces a rapid rush of euphoria and relaxation that lasts for a short amount of time (usually a few minutes). In addition to that, the following effects may also be felt:

  • Numbness of the body

  • Loss of consciousness

  • Giddiness

  • Uncontrolled laughter

  • Uncoordinated movements

  • Blurred vision

  • Confusion

  • Dizziness and/or light-headedness

  • Sweating

  • Feeling unusually tired or weak

How dangerous is it?

Using nitrous oxide outside of a healthcare setting can result in life-limiting disabilities or possibly death.

It is very rare to overdose from recreational use of nitrous oxide, though users will feel some of the aforementioned negative effects. According to the Alcohol and Drug Foundation, there's no current evidence suggesting that mixing nitrous oxide with other substances increases health risks, nor are there known significant withdrawal symptoms beyond cravings to use more nitrous.

However, people often build up a higher tolerance to the drug with increased use. Although there's no physical withdrawal to the drug itself, many people crave the feelings they have when they are high which in turn leads to increased use of the drug and therefore increasing the health risk.

Prolonged use of the drug may result in some long-term effects such as:

  • Memory loss

  • Vitamin B12 depletion (long-term depletion causes brain and nerve damage)

  • Ringing or buzzing in the ears

  • Incontinence

  • Numbness in the hands or feet

  • Limb spasms

  • Potential birth defects if consumed during pregnancy

  • Weakened immune system

  • Disruption to reproductive systems

  • Depression

  • Psychological dependence

  • Psychosis.

If large amounts of nitrous oxide is inhaled, it can result in loss of blood pressure, fainting, and heart attack. In very large doses, without the addition of oxygen, it can even result in death by hypoxia (oxygen deficiency).

Aside from effects caused by inhaling nitrous oxide, there's risk of physical harm from the cartridges the drug comes in. When inhaled directly from these cartridges or tanks, the gas is very cold (-40C degrees) and can cause frostbite to the nose, lips and throat, as well as possible ruptures in lung tissue from the pressure of these cartridges.

There have been reports of some extreme and rare cases of nitrous oxide use that has caused paralgesia. This is due to damage to the spinal cord which affects the nervous system and causes subacute combined degeneration of the spinal cord (also known as Lichtheim's disease). This can cause the loss of a person's mobility, difficulty with speech, and loss of independence for daily life activities such as showering, toileting, eating and much more.

What kind of help and support is available?

Drug use is a personal and sometimes sensitive issue, and may be difficult to talk about. If you are feeling your use is starting to affect things that matter to you it can be helpful to talk to someone outside your friends and family about your options. You can start a chat or give Sonder a call at any time of day or night.

There are many free mental health support resources available and we've included a list below (across Australia and New Zealand) that we recommend depending on your personal situation.


  • Beyondblue - 1300 22 4636 & Online Chat. Nation-wide depression, suicide, anxiety disorders and other related mental illnesses support.

  • Kids helpline - 1800 55 1800 & Web Chat - Under 25’s, parent & teachers advice and counselling.

  • Drug and Alcohol Counselling
    NSW - 1800 250 015
    QLD - 1800 177 833
    VIC - 1800 888 236
    SA - 1300 13 1340
    WA - 1800 198 024
    ACT - 5124 9977

  • Alcohol and Drug Foundation - 1300 85 85 84 - Not counselling but a telephone and online service for anyone who needs relevant, up-to-date information about alcohol and other drugs.

  • SMART recovery - Provides online support meetings for people dealing with addiction, in-person support meetings, support for family and friends and a SMART app SMART Track App - SMART Recovery Australia . Available Australia wide.

  • AODconnect - AODconnect is an app which provides a national listing of alcohol and other drug treatment services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The app is intended for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander alcohol and other drug (AOD) workers, community members or any health professional working in the AOD sector looking for a culturally appropriate service.

  • Family drug support Australia - 1300 368 186 (24/7) - Support for family who are dealing with addiction in their circle.

  • Counselling Online - Phone number state specific via website - A free online and SMS/text-based service for Australian residents concerned about or affected by alcohol and other drugs.

New Zealand

  • Lifeline - 0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE) - Lifeline Aotearoa’s helpline and textline provides 24/7, confidential support from qualified counsellors and trained volunteers.

  • 1737 - Tree call or text 1737 anytime or free call 0800 1737 1737

  • Samaritans - 0800 726 666 - Confidential, Mental health support.

  • Depression Helpline - 0800 111 757 or free text 4202

  • Youthline - Free call 0800 376 633 | Free text 234

  • Drug and Alcohol NZ - 0800 787 797 - 24/7 Or free text 8681 for support and advice.

Related reading:

If you have any questions or need extra support, we're here to help you anytime in any language. Simply start a chat with us via the home screen of the Sonder app to connect to our team of qualified, caring health professionals.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

All content is created and published for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. Always seek the guidance of a qualified health professional.

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