Nitrous Oxide (NOS) is many things to many people; party drug, kitchen aid, pain medicine- even a Tame Impala song. Marketed for use in handheld whipped cream dispensers, NOS is arguably just as often used recreationally, inhaled from balloons for a short-lived dissociative euphoria.
The popularity of NOS in the party scene is nothing new. It’s been in medical use since the 1840s, but it first emerged as a party drug 50 years earlier, at wealthy London soirees.
After discovering the psychoactive effects of NOS by self-experimentation, chemist and researcher Humphry Davy began to routinely offer his party guests a festive huff of the gas from a silk bag. He later published his conclusions on the drug, including its effect on pain. This set into motion its early use in dentistry, and helped spawn the development of modern day anaesthesia.
Read about the NOS parties of the 1700s on the ABC website
Read Humphry Davey’s research on NOS as an anaesthetic on the Internet Archive website
In the medical space, where oxygen is monitored and the environment controlled, NOS is considered fairly low risk. Used recreationally however, NOS has the potential to cause harm in surprisingly diverse ways.
To minimise the immediate risks of NOS, you need to consider both your physical environment and your psychological circumstances. In a longer term sense, NOS carries some very serious health risks, and even some environmental considerations.
Physical harm reduction
Cracking a NOS canister releases the ultra-cold (-40°C) gas inside, and freezes anything in contact with it instantly; including the cracker, and any poorly placed flesh. NEVER TRY TO INHALE DIRECTLY FROM THE CANISTER. You will literally blow your lungs out. When cracking, always ensure there is a barrier between you and the metal/balloon. Many smaller hand-held crackers are sold with a thick plastic protector on them for this purpose.
NOS is a dissociative drug. That means it distorts the way you experience the world, and often gives a sense of disconnection from reality. Gravity and bodily control can be lost as well as awareness of the world, and the hazards around you.
Stay seated if you are using NOS. It might seem like a fun idea to run on NOS but it becomes much less so when you meet a bridge face first and wind up in A&E for a jaw reconstruction (true story, unfortunately).
Oxygen (Breathe, bitch)
Ever seen someone with a death grip on a balloon, lips slowly turning blue? Yeah, don’t do that. By the time you get to that point you’re not actually getting any higher — you’re just low key starting to suffocate.
Once you feel the effects, sit back and stop inhaling. If you pass out, stop use immediately and find a medic. Don’t use large amounts of NOS in an enclosed car, or use any kind of mask or bag as a continuous dosing system.
While its difficult in practical terms to dangerously deprive yourself of oxygen using just a balloon, these other methods have caused deaths.
Psychological harm reduction
The dissociation caused by NOS doesn’t just change how you experience the world around you, it also flips up your inner world. A NOS high is characterized by a repetitive, pulsing sound in your head (refer to the song above), giggles, and transcendent visuals. Those visuals are not always comfortable, and coming back to the present can be very disorientating.
NOS can cause headaches, confusion, dizziness, and short-lived but intense paranoia. Ensure the place and people around you are ones you feel safe with. They can help to reorient you. These considerations become many times more important if other drugs are involved, as below.
Mixing with other drugs
NOS alone gives a pretty minor, short-lived high but is frequently taken in the presence of other drugs. Anecdotal evidence indicates that mixing NOS with uppers, hallucinogens, cannabis, or alcohol causes the effects of both drugs to be felt more deeply, and for longer. This is unpredictable and includes both favourable and unfavourable effects, often taking people further down the rabbit hole than they expected or were prepared for.
They can become confused about where they are, who they are with, and what has happened. This can be both frightening and dangerous. Mixing drugs dramatically increases every personal risk on this list (and the risks of any other drug involved) and we strongly advise against it.
Long-term harm reduction
Like many short-acting drugs, NOS is often re-dosed, and it isn’t uncommon for people to begin using it regularly. NOS reacts badly with a certain chemical pathway in the body, preventing the body from absorbing folate, vitamin B12.
If regular heavy NOS use continues, this will lead to a vitamin B12 deficiency, and a form of anaemia. This deficiency can lead to painful and dangerous nerve and spinal cord damage, tingling, numbness in the fingers and toes, and even paralysis. Heavy NOS use can also lead to memory loss, ringing in the ears, spasms, psychosis, and weakening of the immune system.
Moderation is important.
If you experience any of these symptoms, stop using NOS immediately. B12 supplementation is important in cases of heavy use. It can take months to recover from this type of deficiency.
Read more about the effects of long-term heavy NOS use on the PubMed website and on the Alcohol and Drug Foundation website
Environmental harm reduction
Each box of NOS contains 10 small metal canisters each containing around 8g of the compressed gas. You may be familiar with piles of these discarded canisters and slimy balloons at festivals and parties. In Australia, 10-15 tonnes of discarded canisters wind up in landfill each year.
They’re made of steel, so they can theoretically be recycled. But because there’s no efficient way to ensure a full, extremely pressurised, canister doesn’t sneak through on occasion, recycling plants won’t send them through the crusher due to a justified fear of explosion.
Currently the only way to send them for recycling would be to cut them in half first, but that’s not recommended to try at home…for the same reasons. So we don’t have an answer for this one — NOS is wasteful. Indulgently so. We gotta acknowledge that. Always take your canisters and balloons with you to dispose of as responsibly as possible — birds and sea creatures are frequently found dead with a belly full of rubber and plastic.
NOS is also a greenhouse gas. A bad one at that — it has 300x the warming potential of carbon dioxide. In the scheme of New Zealands’ farting cows it may not be a huge amount of greenhouse gas that party gremlins are releasing into the atmosphere each party season, but it feeds into a larger conversation about the consumption and waste habits of the party scene.