Nitrous Oxide

nitrous oxide is called nonflammable, when inhaled it can seep into the abdominal cavity and bowels, mixing with body gases to create a flammable combination. If ignited the result would be like setting off an explosive inside the body; the danger is real enough that surgical personnel administering nitrous oxide as an anesthetic have been warned about it.

As with many other drugs, effects of nitrous oxide can be influenced by changes in setting. For example, volunteers who knew what to expect performed better on tests than persons who had no information about what nitrous oxide would do to them.

Abuse factors. In tests of the drug's appeal, people in general chose nitrous oxide no more often than placebo; such lack of preference is a classic sign of low addictive potential. One experiment revealed a catch to such findings, however: Volunteers who enjoyed nitrous oxide effects chose it more often than placebo, and volunteers who disliked the drug actions chose it less often than placebo. Thus, overall in the general population the drug might be no more attractive than placebo, but nonetheless some persons may find it captivating. Such a finding is consistent with drugs having high abuse potential, such as heroin; so the fact that persons typically find no attraction in nitrous oxide does not prove low abuse potential for nitrous oxide. Its nickname "hippie crack" suggests that users have recognized an abuse potential. Nonetheless, a medical practitioner who administered the gas as a drug addiction treatment said that in 15,000 cases not a single addict indicated subsequent craving for nitrous oxide; such a patient population would be expected to show particular susceptibility if given a substance with abuse potential. The same practitioner notes that regardless of theoretical possibilities, 200 years of experience demonstrate that nitrous oxide is among the least abused drugs.

Tolerance develops in rats. Human experimentation documents tolerance developing to some effects (such as euphoria and pain relief) but not necessarily to all.

Drug interactions. In an experiment comparing light drinkers of alcohol to moderate drinkers, the moderate drinkers found nitrous oxide more appealing. One group of researchers found that alcohol boosts nitrous oxide effects and that the drug combination creates effects produced by neither substance alone. Those researchers concluded, however, that the combination was not potent enough to have more appeal than nitrous oxide alone. That conclusion assumes, of course, that drug abusers base their conduct on rational analysis of scientific findings. In a similar experiment comparing users and nonusers of marijuana, when given a choice neither group preferred nitrous oxide more than a placebo, but nitrous oxide effects felt stronger to marijuana users. In rats ketamine boosts effects from nitrous oxide. In a human medical context that combination is routine and appears safe, but the combination causes brain damage in rats. Persons using morphine or other opiates can experience muscle rigidity when inhaling nitrous oxide, a situation that can interfere with breathing.

Cancer. Studies do not indicate that nitrous oxide causes cancer in animals. Whether the drug causes cancer in humans is unknown. Genetic damage similar to the amount from daily smoking 10 to 20 cigarettes has been found in health care workers routinely exposed to minuscule amounts of nitrous oxide; such damage might have a potential for causing cancer.

Pregnancy. Fertility is lower in female rats exposed to nitrous oxide than in rats having no exposure. Lower fertility has also been observed among female health care workers with occupational exposure to the gas, and reduced fertility is also reported for males. Offspring of male mice exposed to nitrous oxide have weighed less than normal and have not matured as fast as normal. Birth defects resulted from an experiment exposing pregnant rats to the gas for 24 hours. When given to pregnant women during childbirth the drug builds up in the fetal blood and brain; one authority recommends administering oxygen to any newborn whose mother received nitrous oxide while giving birth. As the twenty-first century began researchers reported that the gas might cause permanent fetal and newborn brain damage, a finding in contrast to previous understanding of the drug. Occupational exposure to nitrous oxide is associated with smaller infants and lower birth weight and may increase likelihood of spontaneous abortion. Pregnant and breast-feeding health workers are advised to avoid rooms where nitrous oxide residues may contaminate the air. Sperm abnormalities and lower fertility have been noted in male rats exposed to nitrous oxide. Wives of men exposed to the gas have shown a higher spontaneous abortion rate, compared to wives of men with no exposure. The compound is not detected in milk of nursing mothers.

Additional information. "Nitrous acid" is an unstable nitrite substance. The nickname "nitrous acid" is sometimes used for nitrous oxide, but they are different substances.

Additional scientific information may be found in:

Block, R.I., et al. "Psychedelic Effects of a Subanesthetic Concentration of Nitrous Oxide." Anesthesia Progress 37 (1990): 271-76. Danto, B.L. "A Bag Full of Laughs." American Journal of Psychiatry 121 (1964): 612-13. Dohrn, C.S., et al. "Subjective and Psychomotor Effects of Nitrous Oxide in Healthy

Volunteers." Behavioural Pharmacology 3 (1992): 19-30. Linden, C.H. "Volatile Substances of Abuse." Emergency Medicine Clinics of North America 8 (1990): 559-78.

Temple, W.A., D.M. Beasley, and D.J. Baker. "Nitrous Oxide Abuse from Whipped

Cream Dispenser Chargers." New Zealand Medical Journal 110 (1997): 322-23. Yagiela, J.A. "Health Hazards and Nitrous Oxide: A Time for Reappraisal." Anesthesia

Progress 38 (1991): 1-11. Zacny, J.P., et al. "Examining the Subjective, Psychomotor and Reinforcing Effects of Nitrous Oxide in Healthy Volunteers: A Dose-Response Analysis." Behavioural Pharmacology 7 (1996): 194-99.

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