The health effects of inhaling nitrous oxide cartridges

October 09, 2014
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You’ve probably used nitrous oxide; spraying the icing over the cake for your grandmother’s 70th, whizzing past your opponents in Need for Speed, or inhaling it through a balloon at a bush doof. None of these uses are illegal, though the latter could possibly kill you. And with studies indicating a rise in the use of nitrous oxide cartridges, commonly known as ‘nangs’, you should probably take a whiff of this.

The most recent National Drug Strategy Survey found that 17.3 per cent of Australian high school students had used inhalants – drugs inhaled through either the nose or mouth – recreationally at least once. It’s an alarming statistic when you consider The Australian Drug foundation outlines users are as young as 12.

Dubbed ‘hippy crack’, nitrous oxide cartridges have been used as an anaesthetic since the early 1800s, with laughing gas parties being held among the British upper classes among the same time. Hallucinations and euphoria from usage made nangs popular, with cost being the only drawback. Today, readily available for dirt-cheap purchase, it’s no surprise nangas (or nangs, bulbs, whippets, johnny  gas – whatever you wanna call ‘em) are on the rise.

Renae Ryan, Associate Professor of Pharmacology at the University of Sydney, says the availability of nangs often comes with the incorrect assumption that they’re safe for use.

“Because nitrous oxide is found in whipped cream canisters and is used in clinical settings, people may think that it is not harmful. It is important to note that the nitrous oxide found in canisters is not ‘medical grade’ and is not regulated in the same way as nitrous oxide used clinically.”

Recent surveys on drug misuse by the UK government show it is an international trend, with statistics from ministerial department Home Office showing that 7.6 per cent of adults aged 16 to 59 had taken nitrous oxide in 2013-14, a significant figure considering nitrous oxide was only recognised as an “emerging legal drug” in 2012.

Media student and resident nangxpert *Fred Jones says mixing nangs with other drugs is common in social circles. “I think it’s pretty harmless. It's definitely safer than other party drugs out there but, that being said, in my experience, people will rarely do a nang when stone sober. It is usually accompanying other drugs – weed, shrooms or MDMA.”

Unlike these other drugs, Fred says acquiring nangs is as easy as hitting up your local supermarket. “They’re relatively cheap, you by a box of canisters which usually work out to be about 50 cents a pop. However, you need a whipped cream dispenser – or a ‘nanganator’ – which is a one-time buy of about $80.”

Despite this, Dr. Ryan insists the physiological effects of nitrous oxide prove it comes at a cost. “Nitrous oxide is known to interact with many ion channels and receptors in the central nervous system and the overall effect of nitrous oxide is to act as a CNS depressant, similar to alcohol. As nitrous oxide can interact with many different systems in the brain, it has a wide range of effects and problems”.

Immediate effects, according to Dr. Ryan, begin with a rapid ‘high’, euphoria and slight hallucinations followed by drowsiness, disinhibition, lightheadedness, and agitation. Fred describes this feeling as “10-20 seconds” of a “short, intense cleaner drunk feeling.”

Impacts of prolonged use, however, are more serious – ranging from asphyxiation to blackouts caused by blood pressure changes, heart failure, and reproductive problems in women. The Medical Journal of Australia lists paraesthesia, incoordination and autonomic dysfunction as symptoms resulting from long-term use of nangas, while the Australian Drug Foundation indicates “paleness, tremors, weight loss, tiredness, chapped lips” as distinct changes to appearance caused by inhalant use.

It may all seem harmless and easy, but you might just want to leave the nangs to your dentist and stick to whipped cream.

Mina Kitsos

Mina Kitsos is a Sydney-based arts and culture journalist currently studying at UTS. In between being a serial cat lady and studying German (Guten Tag!), she enjoys pumping out puns, drinking tea and A$AP Rocky.

Image: GreenZeb

*Name has been changed for privacy.