A Parent's guide to Laughing Gas [Nitrous Oxide]


What is Nitrous Oxide?

Nitrous Oxide is a colourless, non-flammable gas that is used in food catering and medical settings. It is sometimes referred to as an inhalant, along with other terms such as laughing gas, nitro, N2O, NOS, Nangs, whippet, whipits, hippy crack, buzz bomb or balloons.

A comprehensive factsheet on Nitrous Oxide can be found here

How is Nitrous Oxide used?

The gas is typically inhaled using party balloons filled from small [bulbs] or, increasingly, from large canisters of the gas which is expelled from a dispenser. Serious damage can be done to the lungs if the gas is inhaled directly from the dispenser. When inhaled, the fumes enter the bloodstream very quickly and the effects are felt after just a few seconds.

How common is Nitrous Oxide misuse?

The misuse of nitrous oxide recreationally is uncommon. The vast majority of people in the general population do not use nitrous oxide. Those that do, typically use relatively small amounts infrequently.

However, in recent years the recreational use of nitrous oxide in teenagers and young adults has increased, raising concerns among healthcare professionals and parents in Australia and around the world.

The National Drug Strategy Household Survey reported that the use of inhalants, which includes nitrous oxide quadrupled from 2001 to 2019 in Australia. While the Australian Secondary Students' Alcohol and Drug Survey found 18% of the 12 to 17 year olds surveyed had intentionally sniffed inhalants at least once in their lifetime.

A report from the UK showed almost one in ten people aged 16-24 years old reported using nitrous oxide within the previous year. While the most recent Global Drug Survey listed nitrous oxide as the 13th most-used recreational drug in the world.

With such a sharp increase in use, there has also been an increase in harm. A recent study indicated that the number of calls related to nitrous oxide to Poison Information Centers has increased 6 fold between 2016 and 2020.

Talking to your children about Nitrous Oxide or other drugs

If you are worried that your child might be using nitrous oxide or other drugs, the most important action is to remain calm and talk to them. Maintaining open lines of communication and talking openly about drugs and alcohol can help allow them to feel safe and make informed choices. Start the conversation at a time when you are both feeling relaxed, such as while walking together or watching TV and approach the issue with a non-judgmental attitude. It may also help to think about why your child may want to use drugs and work on solutions together.

You can start talking about alcohol and other drugs from an early age to normalise these types of conversations. It is important to ensure you use age-appropriate language and aim to keep conversations calm and casual.

Signs your child might be using Nitrous Oxide

While the most effective way to know if your teenager is using nitrous oxide is to talk calmly with them [see above], there are some potential signs:

  • Items such as whipped cream dispensers, balloons either in a packet or used, cardboard boxes with images of whipped cream on them, or discarded silver canisters.

  • Overheard conversations that include phrases such as “laughing gas, nitro, N2O, NOS, Nangs, whippet, whipits, hippy crack, buzz bomb or balloons".

  • Nonfood items delivered by delivery drivers, including late at night or on weekends.

  • Physical effects of nitrous misuse can include symptoms such as dizziness, confusion, fainting, unsteady gait, blurred vision and numbness of the body. If your child reports these symptoms, it is advisable to seek medical advice from your GP or a health professional.

  • Unexplained changes in mood, personality or behavior.

  • Using Nitrous Oxide frequently or over an extended period can cause more serious long-term effects, such as reduced vitamin B12, leading to anemia. Severe deficiency of vitamin B12 can cause damage to the spinal cord and nerves; this can cause tingling and numbness in the fingers and toes. Severe cases can result in paralysis. Tingling and numbness alone is not always indicative of drug misuse as there can be many other reasons why a child might complain of these symptoms. However, if nitrous misuse is suspected or your child is complaining frequently of numbness and tingling it's important to seek medical assistance.

For a more comprehensive list of side effects and further information regarding nitrous oxide, you can visit the Your Room A-Z of Drugs: Nitrous Oxide

If your child is presenting with physical effects or symptoms, please seek medical attention. In the case of an overdose call triple zero (000). Overdose symptoms can include; loss of consciousness, trouble breathing, irregular heartbeat, tingling and numbness and seizures.

Getting advice or help

If you want more advice and support, help is available. If you believe drugs are impacting your child's learning, relationships, or physical safety, please seek professional support as soon as possible. The following organisations offer free and confidential advice:

  • Family Drug Support (FDS) is a caring, non-religious and non-judgemental organisation that provides support and assistance to families throughout Australia who are dealing with a family member who is using drugs. Call 1300 368 186.

  • Alcohol Drug Information Service (ADIS) NSW. Our help line is open 24 hours a day to provide support to people who are having issues with alcohol or other drugs, are concerned about someone else's alcohol or other drug use. Call 1800 250 015.

  • ReachOut Parents is a service that provides parents with one-on-one support, self-help resources and an online discussion forum.

  • Parent Line is a telephone and online counselling service for parents and carers. Call 1300 130 052 or start a private online chat at facebook.com/parentlinenewsouthwales

  • Get support for a friend or family member with addiction or problem
    behaviours with SMART Recovery

For free and confidential advice 24/7 call Family Drug Support on 1300 368 186 or Alcohol and Drug Information Service (ADIS) on 1800 250 015. This hotline provides confidential support for people struggling with addiction. You can call the Alcohol Drug Information Service (ADIS) 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Or start a Web Chat with an ADIS counselor online Monday to Friday, 8.30am – 5pm. 

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