Not a laughing matter

After a recent party, my husband was bewildered by the discovery of small metal gas cannisters near our back fence. These are actually cannisters of nitrous oxide (laughing gas) sold as cream whipping chargers. The contents of the cannisters are inhaled directly, or after being used to fill a balloon. Known as “nangs”, among other names, inhalation produces a brief high of several seconds.


According to the 7.30 Report on ABC TV in October 2017, there have been a couple of deaths, and several incidents of nerve and even brain injury, in recreational users of nitrous oxide in Australia. The gas cannisters have also been known to explode.

“Nangs” are cheap, can be bought in packs of 10 from general stores, and are also available online. Although it is an offence to supply them if abuse is suspected, this does not appear to be policed.

The Alcohol and Drug Foundation, which seeks to minimise harm, advises that nitrous oxide use can have both acute effects (including dizziness, confusion, blurred vision, weakness and sudden death) and effects from long-term use (such as memory loss, limb numbness, tinnitus and weakened immunity).

The increase in recreational use of nitrous oxide use was discussed in an article in the British Journal of Anaesthesia in 2015. While it is considered a safe drug in controlled medical environs, its use by inexperienced young people, sometimes in high quantities, is fraught with danger.

Inhaling via a balloon at least provides a mix of air with the gas, but inhaling straight from the cannister has been known to rupture lung tissue.

When inhaled, the gas will essentially displace oxygen and so render the user briefly hypoxic; this might be tolerated in most circumstances, but could trigger fits, cardiac or neurological events in susceptible people. If other drugs have been used, the risks of aspiration and other events increases.

Long-term use increases the drug’s risk of interrupting DNA synthesis. This can cause nerve damage due to several mechanisms including vitamin B12 deficiency.

The recreational use of nitrous oxide is increasing. Young people, parents, shop keepers and health workers should be mindful of this.

Dr Marie Healy is a GP with interests in aged and chronic care and health promotion. This advice is general in nature; please see your GP for specific health advice regarding your individual circumstances.

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