All drug use has risks. This page is for information only and does not constitute or replace medical advice. If you have medical concerns about your drug use, please speak to a medical professional.
Nitrous oxide is a gas with anaesthetic and pain-relieving properties. It has been used in medicine such as midwifery and dentistry, and as a recreational drug since the late 1700s. Nitrous oxide is commonly used in the catering industry as an aerosol spray propellant for cartridges of squirty cream.
Nitrous, NOS, laughing gas, gas, nangs, whippets, balloons, N2O
AppearanceA colourless, slightly sweet smelling gas sold in small silver canisters or large medical grade canisters usually dispensed into a balloon from a "cracker" or dispenser.
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Nitrous oxide is legal to buy and sell in the UK for “legitimate uses” such as medicine and dentistry, however it is illegal to sell if it is intended to produce a “psychoactive effect”.
The Psychoactive Substances Act was introduced in the UK in 2016 - for more information visit our page on drugs and the law.
How it’s taken
Gas from cartridges is released into party balloons using a ‘cracker’, ‘charger’ or other dispenser. The gas is then inhaled through the mouth from the balloon. It is essential that the gas is not inhaled directly from a cartridge, as the gas is cold and under high pressure, and this can damage the tissue of the mouth, throat and lungs.
The following information on dosage was taken from PsychonautWiki but this should not be taken as a recommendation: duration and effects of any drug will depend on purity, regularity of use, other medications or drugs you have taken, your body and how it is taken (route of administration).
Inhaled (via mouth)
- Light: 4-8 grams (1/2-1 cartridges)
- Common: 8-16 grams (1-2 cartridges)
- Strong: 16-40 grams (2-5 cartridges)
Accessed June 2020
General information on dosing.
Nitrous oxide is a dissociative drug with anaesthetic and psychedelic properties. The effects will come on within seconds of inhaling the gas and are dose dependant.
The effects of nitrous oxide (and other drugs with psychedelic effects) can also be known as a ‘trip’. They can cause a change in perceptions. Music may sound clearer and colours can appear more vivid – there may be a slight rainbow effect and some people will see fractals or other ‘closed-eye visuals’. Overall sensations such as touch, temperature and reaction to light may feel enhanced.
People can experience euphoria, relaxation and creative thinking as well as an altered perception of time, dizziness, light-headedness, headaches and confusion. People may also experience a spiritual connection.
The effects usually last for around 5-15 minutes and for this reason you may hear it being referred to as ‘hippy crack’ in the media. The effects and risks are not similar to crack in any way other than the fact they are short-lived and you may feel a strong urge to re-dose.
Excessive and prolonged use of nitrous oxide is linked to nerve damage which can affect motor control and coordination.
If you choose to take NOS then the following steps can help to reduce harm.
- Spend at least two hours researching the drug you are planning to take.
- Avoid taking drugs alone and have a ‘sober’ friend around if possible.
- Wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap and water before handling or preparing drugs.
- Ensure that the cartridges you have contain nitrous oxide. Cartridges of other gases, such as CO2 used for inflating bike tyres, can look similar.
- There are different grades of nitrous oxide gas that have different quality levels. Some is intended for use in the catering industry and is considered ‘food safe’ and some is for medical use and is considered ‘medical grade. Nitrous oxide designed for use in car engines and is not for human consumption. Low quality gas can contain an oily residue can be harmful when inhaled.
- Plan your doses and use a watch or timer to keep track of how frequently you are dosing. Nitrous oxide can cause time distortion – time may feel like it has speeded up or slowed down.
- If you are taking nitrous at home, limit the amount you order, as if you have a large box/supply of cartridges it is easy to take more than you planned. The effects are short–lasting and you may experience a strong urge to re-dose.
- If you are going out, only carry what you plan on taking. Leave what you don’t need at home (in a safe place).
- The effects can last for up to 15 minutes but may make the experience of any other drugs you have taken more intense and difficult to control.
- Keep in mind that nitrous oxide is an anaesthetic and it can lead to a loss of feeling, reduced pain perception and difficulty moving. In higher doses people can experience similar effects to a ‘k-hole’ out of body experience.
- Avoid mixing different drugs including alcohol and medicines as this can cause dangerous, unintended or unpredictable effects. Take time to research possible interactions with your medication or health condition.
- If you do mix drugs, do your research, ensure you are somewhere safe and take way less of both substances than you would if you were only taking one.
- Nitrous oxide can have strong psychedelic effects when mixed with other drugs that have psychedelic properties such as cannabis, ketamine, MDMA, LSD and magic mushrooms. Think carefully about mixing these drugs and consider your set (how you feel) and setting (who you are with and your environment).
- Make sure your environment is safe. Sit down when inhaling the balloon – you could collapse if taking the balloon quickly while standing.
- To release the gas from the cartridge, use a cracker or cream charger. Hold the dispenser as far away from the body as possible and fill a strong balloon.
- Placing a thin cloth between the charger and balloon when inflating can help filter any residue from inside the cartridge.
- Avoid inhaling directly from the cartridge/canister/cracker – this can damage your lungs due to the cold temperature of the high-pressured gas.
- Ensure you are in a well-ventilated area – avoid doing balloons in confined spaces such as cars and tents.
- Avoid breathing in and out of the balloon as this will reduce your oxygen levels. Take a breath of normal air in between each inhalation from the balloon.
- Avoid “chain balloons” – take a few mins break between balloons and avoid taking too many in one session. You need plain old oxygen to get in your system too.
- If using a mask to inhale nitrous avoid strapping it to your face. If you pass out, this can cause suffocation and death.
- People who are asthmatic should take extra care if taking nitrous oxide. They may experience tightness in their chest or shortness of breath. If you are planning on taking nitrous oxide, make sure you have any inhalers that you need.
- Sharing balloons can spread infections – only use your own balloon and charger. If you are sharing chargers, clean the dispenser with alcohol wipes between each use.
- Nitrous oxide can lead to a depletion of vitamin D and B12. B12 is essential and a lack of it can lead to serious health issues. If you are planning on taking nitrous oxide consider adding supplements to your diet.
- People who have a vegetarian or vegan diet are particularly at risk of a vitamin B12 deficiency. Symptoms of a B12 deficiency include pins and needles in hands/feet, weakness, tiredness, stumbling, confusion and problems with memory. Some of these symptoms may reduce by improving diet (and increasing consumption of B12) but if they are severe or persist please visit your doctor.
- If you are taking nitrous oxide in a public area pick up any balloons and cartridges (and other litter) before leaving the space.
- Nitrous oxide cartridges can’t be recycled in normal waste or recycling – leaving them in the street, park or lying around a festival is bad for the environment – gather them up and take them to a metal scrapyard or cartridge exchange scheme.
- Most party balloons can’t be recycled – try finding biodegradable or eco-friendly balloons where possible.
- Psychedelic experiences can cause a profound shift in our perception of the world. You can always get in touch with Crew to chat.
People taking NOS have reported the following detection time, but this cannot be taken as a recommendation; detection of any drug will depend on purity, regularity of use, other medications or drugs you have taken, your body and how it’s taken.
- Nitrous oxide is not usually tested for or detected in routine drug tests.