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Can inhaling nitrous or ‘nanging’ be dangerous?

“One of my best friends has started hanging out with a new group of people and they are messing around with bulbs – they call it ‘nanging’. They say it is the same as ‘laughing gas’ and is called nitrous. I am worried about her, she says that I shouldn’t be worried because it is harmless. Is it dangerous and what does it actually do to you?”

Thanks for the question, although it is most probably one of the most difficult to answer as I have to be extremely careful about what I say as I don’t want to give anyone reading this any ideas of what to do …

‘Nanging’ is a slang term used to describe the inhalation of a gas called nitrous oxide (N2O) from cartridges (‘bulbs’, ‘whippets’ or ‘nangs’) usually used in soda syphons or for making whipped cream. According to UrbanDictionary.com, it’s called ‘nanging’ due to the “repetitive sound distortions induced by its use”. The gas is released from the bulb into another container (e.g., a balloon) and then inhaled, usually through the mouth, resulting in a short ‘high’.

Nitrous oxide has been around for a very long time and is used in surgery and dentistry for its anaesthetic and analgesic (pain-relieving) effects. It is often called ‘laughing gas’ mainly due to the euphoric effects of inhaling it (even though you may see movies showing people using this gas laughing hysterically, that is not what the gas necessarily does – the term ‘laughing gas’ relates to the hallucinogenic or euphoric effect). It has been used by some to get intoxicated or ‘out of it’ for a very long time – with reports of use in this way going back to the 18th century! In addition to the effects already discussed, users say they experience a lack of coordination and disassociation (feeling separated from their body) when they inhale the drug and that is why it continues to be popular amongst some groups of young people.

If you take a look around the web you will find lots of discussion around the use of nitrous and bulbs. Some people talk about the fact that because this substance is used by doctors and dentists then it must be safe, whilst others imply that anyone who inhales this gas is going to drop dead immediately! The reality is somewhere in the middle (as it usually is) but it is important to be aware that nitrous is not a safe product to play around with and is certainly not without risks. Even though it continues to be used by health professionals to assist them with their patients, it is used in a very controlled way to ensure safety. There is recent research, however, to say that even when used in medical procedures N2O can be neurotoxic, particularly in the developing brain.

Although many young people believe nitrous to be ‘harmless’, there have been deaths reported due to ‘nanging’. These have been caused by the user choking on their own vomit after inhaling the gas and passing out or falling asleep. ‘Sudden sniffing death’ is also a risk, that is, heart failure resulting from an irregular heartbeat usually caused by stress or strenuous activity after sniffing or inhaling the gas. This is rare but, when it does occur, the user usually has been startled (possibly because he or she has been caught), or has engaged in rigorous activity following the use of the drug and collapse and death follow.

Recently we have seen a number of nitrous-related deaths amongst young people in Australia. According to reports, two of these appeared to be caused by the nitrous displacing the oxygen in the lungs of the user (hypoxia), resulting in almost instantaneous death. Once again, this is rare but as nanging continues to grow in popularity, the number of nitrous-related injuries and deaths is likely to rise. Other deaths have been linked to ‘misadventure’, i.e., the person using the drug has died due to an accident such as falling over and hitting their head or the like.

Is death likely? Most probably not, as already stated, deaths from nitrous are rare, but is nitrous or ‘nanging’ risk free? Absolutely not! Nitrous oxide, particularly if used regularly, can be toxic to a number of organs, including the nervous system, blood, heart and immune system. It may seem a bit of harmless fun, but death is possible and there is there is the risk of long-term negative impacts if your friend continues to mess around with it …

First published: May 2015
Reviewed and updated: December 2018

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