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No Laughing Matter: The Long Term Effects of Nitrous Oxide

Ever wondered if nitrous oxide (laughing gas) can be problematic for your health? You might be surprised to find out the answer.

Nitrous oxide, otherwise known as laughing gas, is often used as a sedative agent by dentists (or given to women going into labor) to make patients feel more comfortable during medical procedures. Some people abuse nitrous oxide recreationally to feel high. Though nitrous oxide’s effects can wear off soon after laughing gas inhalation stops, you might wonder if there are long-term, lasting effects from breathing in nitrous oxide regularly.

Short-Term Effects

When breathing in nitrous oxide through a gas mask, you won’t be fully asleep — but often experience a feeling of calmness. You might feel tingling in your limbs, lightheadedness, lack of coordination, dizziness, slurred or distorted speech, feeling “high,” confusion and tiredness. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says short term effects of too much nitrous oxide inhalation include nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, headache, confusion, coughing, burning sensations, shortness of breath, convulsions and even unconsciousness.

Is it Safe?

The American Dental Association says nitrous oxide is a safe sedative when used properly, effective for helping patients relax. And the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry says nitrous oxide is safe to use (when medically supervised) in pediatric dental patients. But, overexposure and improper use (or abuse) of nitrous oxide can be dangerous.

Effects from Long-Term Overexposure

Being exposed to too much nitrous oxide can lead to long-term health problems, but routine (proper) use of it during medical procedures isn't problematic for most patients.

  1. The American Pregnancy Association says healthcare workers (such as nurses) who are repeatedly exposed to nitrous oxide may be at risk for reproductive problems.
  2. A 2016 issue of BC Medical Journal says a patient who was abusing nitrous oxide presented to a hospital with prickling sensations in the limbs (paresthesia), sensory loss, and vitamin B12 deficiency.
  3. Integra’s nitrous oxide safety data sheet warns that chronic overexposure of nitrous oxide can result in nervous system damage, loss of feeling in fingers, tingling in hands and legs, numbness, muscle weakness, and poor balance — and that too much nitrous oxide can lead to death.
  4. The National Institute on Drug Abuse says abusing inhalants (such as nitrous oxide inhaled from balloons or whipped cream aerosol cans) can cause hearing loss, bone marrow damage, liver and kidney damage, nerve damage, limb spasms, loss of coordination, delayed behavioral development, and brain damage (from cutting off oxygen flow to the brain).

Is Laughing Gas Right for Me?

Talk with your doctor or dentist about the risks and benefits of using nitrous oxide in healthcare settings for medical procedures. Never use laughing gas recreationally (without medical supervision), as inhaling too much of it can cause serious health problems and may even lead to death.

[Image via Shutterstock]

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