Nitrous Oxide

What is nitrous oxide?

Nitrous oxide is a gas used medically as an anaesthetic. It’s also used in catering as the propellant in whipped cream chargers. It is often referred to as ‘laughing gas’ because it can give those who inhale it a euphoric mood. Other legitimate uses of nitrous oxide include as a fuel additive.


As of 8 November 2023, nitrous oxide, or ‘laughing gas’, is classified as a Class C drug, marking a key change to how possessing this psychoactive substance is treated in law.

It is now a criminal offence to be found in possession of nitrous oxide where its intended use is to be wrongfully inhaled ‘to get high’.

Learn more about the law around the use of nitrous oxide on the GOV.UK website.

Street names

Other names for nitrous oxide include ‘chargers’, ‘balloons’, ‘laughing gas’, ‘smart whips’, ‘NOS’, and ‘whippets’.

Effects when used recreationally

Taking nitrous oxide can cause:

  • Feelings of euphoria, relaxation, and calmness.
  • Fits of giggles and laughter – hence the nickname ‘laughing gas’.
  • Sound distortions and hallucinations – when you can hear or see things that aren’t there.

Nitrous oxide can also:

  • Give you a severe headache
  • Cause dizziness
  • Stop you thinking straight
  • Cause short-lived but intense feelings of paranoia

How long does it take to work?

The effects of nitrous oxide are usually immediate.

How long do the effects last?

The effects of nitrous oxide last for one or two minutes on average.

Common risks

It’s more dangerous when people inhale directly from the canister. Using nitrous oxide may cause freeze burns to the hands. Too much nitrous oxide can make you faint, lose consciousness, suffocate, deplete your body of Vitamin B12, cause anxiety issues, and life-changing nerve damage.

Using nitrous oxide with other drugs

Mixing any drugs in the body can cause an increase in risk, however, mixing nitrous oxide with alcohol is especially dangerous as it can increase the risks associated with both substances and can lead to an increased risk of accidents.

As well as the health impact, there are also concerns about:

  • Anti-social behaviour associated with the drug’s use
  • The disturbance caused by those using drugs in public
  • Littering of empty canisters on the street
  • Nitrous oxide is more harmful to the climate than carbon dioxide and is steadily increasing in the atmosphere

Nitrous oxide harm reduction advice

It is important to communicate that there is no safe way of taking nitrous oxide. The following guidance highlights areas of particular harm and risk.

  • Always dispense nitrous oxide into a balloon. Using it straight from a whipped cream dispenser will put you at risk of lung and throat damage because the gas being released is so cold.
  • Don’t keep re-breathing a balloon for a long time. After you have inhaled from a balloon a few times, there won’t be any nitrous oxide left, and you’re simply starving your brain of oxygen. Not many people have died from nitrous oxide, but when they have, it’s as a result of oxygen deprivation.
  • Use nitrous oxide sitting down to avoid falls/accidents caused by the lack of coordination that you’ll likely experience.
  • Avoid using nitrous oxide too often. Chronic use can cause Vitamin B12 deficiency, which can have a negative effect on mood and memory.
  • Be mindful that nitrous oxide will make the effects of other drugs stronger, particularly psychedelics. Make sure you’re in the right mindset and a safe environment.
  • If someone collapses or becomes unresponsive after taking nitrous oxide, seek immediate medical attention. You will not get into trouble for doing this.
  • Dispose of used canisters properly – they can be recycled.