Nitrous Oxide

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Credits and Introduction

A commercially-available nitrous dispenser commonly used for dispensing whipped cream
This FAQ is a compilation of information from various internet references (mostly Erowid), personal experience, and contributions from various Bluelighters. The original content was written and posted by the Bluelight user Pinger, with significant contributions from BigTrancer, ChEmIcaLNiGhT, johnboy, Miss Flea, nickthecheese, Noc_Tunal, and vertigo. It was edited by: Catch-22 and Orlando and later edited by tambourine-man.

Common Terms: Nitrous, nangs, whippits, crackers, chargers, johnny gas, laughing gas, bulbs, N2O

Description & Overview

Nitrous is a weak anaesthetic gas that has been in use since the late 18th century. It is commonly used for both surgical and recreational purposes. Most people have experienced nitrous in the context of dentistry. Nitrous is also used in the dairy industry as a mixing and foaming agent as it is non-flammable, bacteriostatic (stops bacteria from growing) and leaves no taste or odour. Nitrous is also used in auto racing to link building service speed engines. Nitrous is even used in diving to prepare divers for nitrous-like effects.

Nitrous oxide is the only inhalational anaesthetic agent used that is a not a vapour, but a true gas by definition. For anaesthetic purposes, it is supplied in blue cylinders, compressed to its liquid phase.

Physical Constants

Molecular Weight...........................44

Boiling Point..................................-88.0 deg. C @ 760 mm Hg

Vapour Pressure............................39,000 mm Hg @ 20 deg. C

Partition Coefficients

Blood: Gas......................................0.47

Brain: Blood....................................1.1

Oil: Gas...........................................1.4


MAC in 100% oxygen.....................104% atm


A collection of commercially-available "chargers" (or bulbs) that contain pressurised nitrous oxide.

When inhaled, nitrous produces a variety of physical effects including:

  • Disorientation
  • Fixated vision
  • Throbbing or pulsating auditory hallucinations
  • Similarly pulsating visual hallucinations
  • Increased pain threshold
  • Deeper mental connections

Physiological effects last approximately a minute for a lungful of nitrous and then dissipate quickly. Residual effects may last up to several minutes later.

Nitrous gas permeates the lipid membranes and produces an anaesthetic effect. Long term or heavy use can have unpleasant effects. While light use is not as hazardous, it can still be dangerous in its own right.

Anecdotal description of effects

"After several deep breaths of air, I inhale nearly a lungful of nitrous and pull some air down on top and then hold my breath. Within seconds, a light tingling can be felt which seems to increase in frequency. The sensation is much as if waves were travelling up your body or as if you were twisting or spinning. Disorientation increases rapidly and the pulsing sounds/feelings increase, wrapping over one another. It is now, with eyes shut, that I enter a dreamlike state, where I am thinking out something and the external world has essentially ceased to exist. The urge to breathe takes over at some point and partial or whole breaths taken. Open eyes reveal some sort of tunnel vision, with regions of disorientation about the outside. Slowly the throbbing subsides.

At other times I experience a sense of paranoia mixed with disorientation. I have a deep conviction while under the influence that all things are cycling together, that there is some deeper cyclical event occurring. It is as an experience of deja vu continually occurring. The feeling is profound."


The medical use of nitrous oxide is well-established, however, using a mask in this manner is incredibly dangerous if done unsupervised. There is a risk of delirium occurring and being unable to remove the mask, resulting in asphyxiation and death.
  • Respiratory: Respiratory depression, apnea, diffusion hypoxia
  • Cardiovascular: Hypotension, arrhythmias
  • Nervous: Dizzyness, euphoria, increased CBF/ICP, neuropathy with chronic exposure
  • Gastrointestinal: Nausea, vomiting, ileus
  • Other: Bone marrow depression with chronic exposure, malignant hyperthermia

The primary dangers of nitrous inhalation are:

1. Oxygen Deprivation

One of the problems occasionally encountered when nitrous oxide is used for recreational purposes is that, unless the compound is administered with at least 20 percent oxygen, hypoxia (decreased oxygen content of the blood) can be induced. In order to achieve high enough concentrations of nitrous oxide to get a good behavioural effect, concentrations of 50 percent or greater must be inhaled. If a 50% nitrous concentration is mixed with room air (which is about 21% oxygen), inhaled oxygen concentrations drop to low levels and the hypoxia may result in irreversible brain damage. (21% of 50% = about 10% total oxygen concentration, or half of what you normally breath)

Second, because nitrous oxide does not support life, it should be mixed with oxygen if it is to be breathed for more than a few minutes. At private parties, oxygen tanks are rarely supplied, and people have died of asphyxiation by breathing straight nitrous oxide through face masks. One way to avoid these dangers is to fill balloons from tanks and breathe from the balloons.

2. Frostbite

Breathing nitrous directly from pressurized tanks is dangerous for two reasons. First, gas flowing from such tanks is very cold - cold enough to cause frostbite of noses, lips and (most serious) vocal cords. Second, because a user will be anesthetized, they may be unaware of such injuries until too late.

3. Loss of Motor Control

Nitrous oxide rapidly leads to complete loss of motor control. Anyone who breathes nitrous while standing will soon reel about and fall to the floor. Therefore, it is unwise to try the gas unless one is in a comfortable sitting or lying position.

Serious injuries have resulted from people inhaling gas while standing in front of open windows, when driving cars or when operating machinery. Others have been badly hurt by accidentally pulling heavy tanks of nitrous oxide over onto themselves while intoxicated.

4. Vitamin B12 Interference

Physicians and dentists have long considered nitrous oxide to be a safe pharmacological agent. Nevertheless, there is some evidence that excessive or prolonged use of it can damage the bone marrow and nervous system by interfering with the action of vitamin B-12.

There have been reports of immunological and reproductive disturbances in professionals who are chronically exposed to nitrous oxide. The immunological disturbances are documented by Peric et al (1991) _Anaethesia_ 46: 531-7. Apparently anaesthetic personnel had been complaining about weakness and recurrent infections and decreased peripheral blood leukocyte counts has been found.

5. Nausea

People who breathe nitrous oxide for more than a few minutes at a time may experience nausea, especially if they have just eaten. They may also feel hung over for some time afterwards.

6. Addiction

Weil & Rosen: “Addiction to nitrous oxide is a real possibility. Addicts may suffer serious mood and personality changes in addition to the bone marrow and nervous system damage already mentioned."

At-risk groups

Further caution should be exercised by the following groups of people who may be more susceptible to the negative effects of nitrous oxide:

  • Pregnant women: since nitrous oxide is a known teratogen in rodents, acting by depleting folates and partially reversible by oral folinic acid, we can expect a similar syndrome in humans.
  • Vegans who don't take B12 supplements: although documented cases of vegans with B12 deficiencies are scarce, theories on nutrition indicate that vegans are unlikely to get as much B12 as other groups of people.
  • Individuals with healing wounds, infections, or immunological disorders: I'm throwing this recommendation in based on a "better safe than sorry" policy. Short-term exposure to nitrous oxide is unlikely to be a problem, but why not play it safe?

Nitrous Use Warnings

Don't be tempted to use industrial nitrous. It may be more easily available (and possibly carry less suspicion) but it contains hydrogen sulphide which is hazardous to your health.

Remember, your body depends on a steady flow of oxygen and you need to continue breathing. Of the few that occur, most (if not all) associated deaths with nitrous are related to asphyxiation or improper and dangerous application.

Some of the following items may seem dumb, they have all actually happened (usually resulting in death):

  • DON'T use industrial/automotive nitrous, or any other form not intended for human consumption. This contains hydrogen sulphide, which is not something you should inhale.
  • DON'T try to inhale N2O directly from whippits, tank nozzles, or any other point of escaping gas. The gas WILL give you frost burn. Balloon broke? Try a condom or a plastic bag!
  • DON'T strap a gas mask to your face. If you pass out, you will not be able to remove the mask and will most likely die of oxygen starvation. Yes, people have died doing this.
  • DON'T lock yourself in a room, closet, car, or refrigerator with a tank of nitrous and open it. Again, the enclosed space will prevent you from receiving the requisite level of oxygen. Yes, people have died doing this.
  • DON'T stand up and do it. As mentioned previously, doing this is dangerous because you may rapidly collapse after inhalation. Also, stay away from open windows.
  • DON'T use a large tank without a regulator or which isn't strapped down.
  • DON'T use homemade nitrous. Unless you are a chemist, you're likely to get a load of rubbish like NO2, H2NO3, and other yummy toxic things.
  • DON'T allow yourself to lose sight of moderation. No one likes a bong hoarder, and no one likes a Nitrous Whore.


Why is nitrous used as a whipped cream propellant?

Nitrous dissolves in the liquid cream. When you hit the release valve, the gas expands and in doing so whips the cream into a foam and expels it from the can (this explanation is from the book Food Science).

An interesting aside is that nitrous oxide is an inhalation anaesthetic because it dissolves in synaptic lipid membranes. So, it's not a coincidence that nitrous oxide is a whipped cream propellant and an inhalation anaesthetic - nitrous oxide dissolves in fatty cream and it also dissolves in fatty cell membranes. Lots of things work as inhalation anaesthetics; the better they dissolve in the lipid membranes, the lower the pressure required. This is why spot removers like ether and chloroform work as anaesthetics in low concentration. At high enough pressure, even nitrogen will dissolve in membranes; this causes nitrogen narcosis in divers. Even an inert gas like argon will work as anaesthetic since it will dissolve in membranes under enough pressure. This is also why people sniff fat-soluble gases like propane and Freon to get high.

Does nitrous kill brain cells?

Yes, nitrous does 'kill brain cells;' although that's a pretty general statement. Both life and alcohol also kill brain cells. If you're truly interested in the medical aspects of recreational drugs, written for laymen, get the following two books, both, as far as I know, still in print:

1. From Chocolate to Morphine - Andrew Weil & Winifred Rosen. Make sure you get the 1993 edition. It's the one with the horrible sub-title "Everything You Need To Know About Mind-Altering Drugs". The sub-title's wrong, but it's still a good reference.

2. A Primer of Drug Action - Robert M. Julien.

From Robert M. Julien: "A gas of low anaesthetic potency, [nitrous] is incapable of inducing deep levels of anaesthesia if an adequate oxygen concentration is maintained. Nitrous oxide induces a state of behavioural disinhibition, analgesia, and euphoria. One of the problems occasionally encountered when nitrous oxide is used for recreational purposes is that, unless the compound is administered with at least 20 percent oxygen, hypoxia (decreased oxygen content of the blood) can be induced. But in order to achieve high enough concentrations of nitrous oxide to get a good behavioural effect, concentrations of 50 percent or greater must be inhaled. If such concentrations are mixed with room air, inhaled oxygen concentrations drop to low levels and the hypoxia may result in irreversible brain damage."

Does long term damage ever occur from nitrous use?

Allow me to answer this by transcribing two recent case reports. At the same time it will give you an idea what "neuropathy" and "myeloneuropathy" looks like and what signs to watch out for when you are a nitrous regular.

Both cases are from the following source: Stacey (1992): "Methionine in the treatment of nitrous oxide induced neuropathy and myeloneuropathy" Journal of Neurology 239:401-403.

Case 1: "This 36-year old electrical engineer came to the emergency room complaining that he was unable to walk. Symptoms had begun 4 days earlier with "pins and needles" in both feet that gradually worsened and ascended to involve the knees and the fingertips. With worsening of the paresthesias (-no sense of touch or pain-) he noted difficulty in maintaining proper control of the movements of his arms and hands and trouble in walking. He also reported the sensation of electric shocks through his back and legs upon flexion of the neck. He denied bladder or bowel impairment but he had been unable to have an erection for the past week. His past medical history was unremarkable except for occasional abuse of alcohol in the past. However he denied any drinking of alcohol for the past 8 months.

For recreational purposes he had inhaled two to three boxes of nitrous oxide, each box containing 24 cartridges, practically every day for the past six months. When first seen his general physical examination was completely unremarkable. The neurological examination showed hyperesthesia and hyperalgesia in the lower extremities up to the knees. He had severe bilateral sensorydystaxia and could only stand with support. Intramuscular B12 injections were started and during the following days his hematological status improved, (-apart from neurological symptoms, the functional B12 deficiency caused by N2O also produces megaloblasticanemia,- ed.) although his neurological condition continued to deteriorate. The paresthesias ascended to the nipples and he developed fecal and urinary incontinence. Four weeks later he began to improve and four months after the onset of the symptoms, and his last use of nitrous oxide he could walk with some hesitation and had completely regained bowel and bladder control and sexual function".

Case 2: "This 32 year old woman was admitted to the neurology service for inability to walk and paresthesias in her limbs and trunk. Her symptoms began 3 weeks prior to admission with a "tingling" sensation in the soles of her feet, trunk and hands. Her gait became progressively less steady and the day prior to admission she had an episode of urinary incontinence. Her past medical history was significant for bulimia and occasional intranasal use of cocaine. For the previous 3 months she had inhaled nitrous oxide for recreational purposes, up to 200 cartridges a day, three to four times a week."

What this shows is that these people really did a lot of nitrous, say 300-400 cartridges a week, for a few months in a row to develop these really nasty symptoms. However, it also shows that people who do such things do exist. For the really health conscious among you, if you "must" do nitrous for a longer period be sure to take high doses of folic acid (is also depleted from your body as a result of functional B12 deficiency ) and vitamin B12.

A less known fact is that the state of B12 deficiency caused by regular use of nitrous oxide produces hyperhomocysteinemia, an accumulation in the blood of the amino acid homocysteine. Hyperhomocysteinemia is a risk factor for vascular disease of all sorts. Furthermore, hyperhomocysteinemia, B12 deficiency and folic acid deficiency early in pregnancy all increase the risk of getting a child with a neural tube defect (spina bifida and anencephaly, children with no brains or open spinal cord). If you are a woman, planning to get pregnant or just "at risk of getting pregnant", nitrous is a bad idea.

How to use nitrous – Techniques from various Bluelighters

Vertigo’s cracker technique

Here is a 10-step guide to a cracker/balloon set up:

  1. Take a bulb and put it in the cracker so that the small end is facing the part of the cracker containing the pin and holes.
  2. Gently screw the two parts of the cracker together, taking care not to puncture the seal yet.
  3. Stretch the opening of a latex balloon evenly over the part of the cracker with the holes on it. If there is a "lip" on the cracker top, that's as far as you need to stretch it.
  4. In one hand, firmly hold the end of the cracker attached to the balloon with your fingers around the balloon opening. (NOTE: Do not grip the body of the balloon - only the neck. Otherwise, your fingers could interfere with the inflation of the balloon).
  5. With your other hand, grasp the other end of the cracker and gently twist as far as you can; causing the pin to puncture the bulb.
  6. SLOWLY untwist the end of the cracker to permit the nitrous to flow into the balloon. (NOTE: The gas is very cold and can freeze your fingers and burst the balloon if it escapes too quickly or if the balloon is not properly situated on the cracker).
  7. After all of the nitrous from the bulb has filled the balloon, allow time for the balloon neck to warm slightly. Touch the neck of the balloon to make sure it is not frozen. Removing the balloon if the neck is frozen may result in breakage. (CAUTION: If a balloon does break, NEVER attempt to inhale the nitrous directly from the bulb into your mouth. Serious damage can occur! Also, keep gas from spraying into eyes, nose, or from coming into contact w/ skin, pets, loved ones, or anything else in the area).
  8. Use the index and middle fingers and thumb of one hand to grasp the end of the neck of the balloon near the edge of the cracker.
  9. Use the thumb of the other hand to gently roll the lip of the balloon off the cracker.
  10. Prepare to inhale contents of balloon.

My preferred setting is to lie on my back w/ some good music on and my eyes closed. Sometimes I do the whole thing in one shot, sometimes not. Sometimes I shotgun balloons with my girlfriend, etc. Once you get the hang of it, the variations are endless.

Unless you really know what you're doing and have a good solid appreciation for your limits, don't do too many in one sitting - pace yourself. It’s fun to do one right after another, but give yourself a few minutes in between subsequent sets so you don't just pass out. Although it may seem fun to slip into unconsciousness, doing so can be extremely dangerous. Always use with a friend so that they can monitor your breathing. This sounds stupid, but you'd be surprised how easy it can be to "forget to breathe."

Finally, for a really funny moment, but a total waste of nitrous, talk or laugh out loud. You will sound unbelievably weird - sort of the opposite of helium voice.

Pinger’s Bulberator Method

I understand that in the US, most nitrous (N2O) is dispensed by the cracker and balloon method. If you are a serious johnny gas head, like us Aussies (and other whipptit master- doffs cap to RuRu) you will invest in a charger. You can buy the chargers at most hardware stores, or try an online vendor if you don’t have one in your area. The bulbs can be bought at your "head" shops, or purchased at kitchen-type stores.

The bulbs are placed in the charger cylinder and then screwed into the main assembly, where a pin punches the bulb entrance and decants the gas into the charger. With the larger charger you should be able to get up to 3-4 bulbs in the charger (recommended for pro’s only!).

Exhale your air from your lungs, then squeeze very gently on the handle (ease it like a clutch) until the gas begins to flow. Inhale a comfortable amount and hold on to it (don’t just blow it out like cigarette smoke!). Gently blow air out your nose (the heavier nitrous will stay down in your lungs) and wait for the buzz. Take more as required.

You will get a slight light-headed feeling. Music becomes much more tangible and tactile senses increase, like when on a pill. It is an anaesthetic and dissociative so you will feel floaty and detached. You may get some visuals and assorted sensations.

It is often good to set the room up before starting. Always be sitting down (as nitrous can make you pass out). Mattresses, cushions etc are good. Music in background is a necessity. Taking nitrous from a whipped cream can is a waste of time and money. There is about ½ pint of nitrous in those cans, enough to give you a tingle but nothing else.

Maintaining your bulberator/cracker

Do NOT buy an old cracker/bulberator/dispenser! The old "o-ring" seals probably need replacing and you run the risk of a seal coming undone whilst you have high pressure gas inside the dispenser. Since 1999, all iSi-approved cream dispensers are fitted with internal rubber seals, which are safer and longer-lasting than the old "o-rings.”

Unless you can disassemble all the pieces to wash it in bleach (or if you know that the person who had it before you took it apart regularly to disinfect it), it has probably been (and may still be) growing mould, bacteria and other assorted tasties both inside the body of the dispenser and in the mouthpiece. Especially if it has been sitting on the shelf of an op-shop or in someone's garage or kitchen for years.

Needless to say, even if you buy your bulberator brand-new, it's worth washing both the bulberator and nozzle regularly. Check the "o-ring" regularly and replace at the first sign of wear. They're dirt-cheap to replace, so there really is no excuse.