Advice for parents and guardians – nitrous oxide

It’s understandable to be concerned if you think your child or dependent is using alcohol or drugs. This includes nitrous oxide or ‘laughing gas’, which is increasingly popular with young people.

This advice for parents and guardians will help you to understand what nitrous oxide is, how it is used, its associated effects, risks and harms, and how you can keep your child as safe and informed as possible if you think they are taking nitrous oxide. 

What is nitrous oxide?

Pair of Nitrous Oxide or laughing gas canisters and two balloons used for inhaling the gas

Nitrous oxide is a colourless gas that comes in small pressurised metal canisters, often called ‘whippits’.

It’s often referred to as ‘laughing gas’ because it often caused people to burst out laughing when inhaled.

As well as ‘the giggles’, nitrous oxide slows down messages between the brain and body and can cause accidents and serious harm.

How is nitrous oxide used?

The gas from the canister, or ‘whippit’, is transferred to a balloon through a dispenser. The gas is then inhaled from the balloon, which creates a short-lasting high.

What are the effects of nitrous oxide?

Most people will experience short-lived and intense feelings of:

  • ‘The giggles’
  • Joy and relaxation
  • Changes to sounds, sight and touch

Some people also experience negative feelings of:

  • Dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Fainting or falling over
  • Confusion
  • Seeing or hearing things that are not real

What are the risks?

Using any drug comes with risks, and this includes nitrous oxide. Here are some of the risks associated with nitrous oxide:

  • The effects don’t last long, so it can be tempting to take more and more in a short space of time.
  • Some people inhale directly from the canister or dispenser instead of a balloon, which can damage the throat and lungs.
  • Sharing balloons can pass on infections.
  • Mixing with other drugs or alcohol increases the risk of harm as the effects are more unpredictable and hard to control.
  • Oxygen flow to the brain can be affected, causing dizziness, unconsciousness or fainting.
  • Solvent gases (like nitrous oxide) can cause the heart to beat irregularly, increasing the risk of heart failure.
  • Heavy use, over a long period, has been linked to a lack of vitamin B12. This can cause nerve damage, leading to pain or tingling in the toes and fingers.
  • The canisters are highly pressurised and could cause an explosion if near naked flames.
  • Using nitrous oxide in confined spaces, like cars or tents, can increase the risks.

What can I do if my child or dependent is using nitrous oxide?

Pair of Nitrous Oxide or laughing gas canisters and two balloons used for inhaling the gas

If you are worried about your child or someone you look after it can be hard to know what to do, or if you are doing the right thing, but there are specialist services here to help.

There are many reasons that young people use drugs or alcohol; it might just be for fun, to experiment, to cope with a difficult situation or because their friends are doing it.

Consider talking to your child or dependent about the information we have provided. They may feel pressurised into using nitrous oxide if their friends are using it.

If you think they still intend on taking nitrous oxide, share this advice on how they can stay as safe as possible when using it:

  • Go low and slow. It can be easy to take too much and experience negative effects. Pace yourself and allow your lungs to reinflate. Keep track of how much and how often you have inhaled. 
  • Don’t mix with other drugs and alcohol. If you do, the effects are more unpredictable and difficult to control.
  • Look out for your mates. Don’t use it alone and make sure a mate is with you, so if something does go wrong, there is someone there to get help.
  • Get help if something goes wrong. Call 999 for the emergency services and be honest about what has happened. You won’t get into trouble for helping to save someone in an emergency.
  • Do not share balloons. This can spread infections.
  • Never inhale straight from the canister or dispenser. Always release the gas into a balloon.
  • Sit down when using nitrous oxide. This will prevent you from falling over. Always avoid using it near railway tracks, busy roads, or water.
  • Avoid heavy and regular use. This will decrease the likelihood of vitamin B12 deficiency.
  • Keep canisters away from fires, candles, lighters and cigarettes. This will help to avoid the risk of canisters exploding.
  • Care for the environment and your local community. Dispose of your waste or take it home.