While most parents worry about their teens doing drugs, from marijuana and stimulants to alcohol, there are less obvious ones that can be happening right under their noses — namely, nitrous oxide, also known as whippets but better known as laughing gas, which some inhale from canisters to get high.
Given that nitrous oxide is a legal drug that is "widely available and cheap," it’s not surprising that its use is rapidly increasing. Studies show that recreational use of nitrous oxide is "very popular, particularly among adolescents" and students. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, teens 16 to 17 years old are the most common age group that abuses nitrous oxide.
There are several ways teens can get their hands on the drug, including by inhaling "the gas from balloons filled by tanks used in dental or automotive supply, from whipped cream dispensers that release gas stored in 'chargers' or steel cartridges used as a propellant in whipped cream, or directly from whipped cream containers that are purchased at grocery stores," according to a study published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs.
Nitrous oxide recently made headlines when it was mistakenly reported that a New York law prohibits selling whipped cream — which is aerosolized by the gas — to anyone under 21 years old in an effort to prevent recreational nitrous oxide use. The law, which went into effect in November 2021, but is now reportedly being enforced in more places, prohibits the sale of whipped cream chargers — small metal cartridges that contain nitrous oxide — to anyone under 21, not actual cans of whipped cream.
Here's what parents need to know about nitrous oxide abuse in teens, including the signs to look out for, according to experts.
What are the dangers of teens inhaling nitrous oxide?
Dr. Manish Mishra, chief medical officer of the Texas Healthcare and Diagnostic Center and medical reviewer for Northeast Addictions Treatment Center, tells Yahoo Life that nitrous oxide abuse can cause "a range of unpleasant and even dangerous side effects," including sweating, confusion, dizziness, nausea and hallucinations. "Some of the most dangerous impacts of abusing nitrous oxide can include suffocation, fainting, heart attack and in some cases, sudden death," he explains.
Dr. Alok Patel, a pediatric physician at Stanford Medicine Children's Health, explains that nitrous oxide is neurotoxic, meaning it can cause damage to brain cells. "While the effects of short-term, recreational use may seem temporary, repeated use can be neurotoxic, with some research suggesting there can be long-term cognitive effects," he says. "Researchers still do not know the full short or long-term impact of abusing N2O."
Mishra points that abusing a pressurized drug carries additional risks. "Pressurized cans containing nitrous oxide can explode," he notes, "and intense pressure can cause ruptures to the lungs."
Why do teens inhale it?
Many teens inhale nitrous oxide to feel its euphoric effects. "When enough of the drug is ingested, it can cause a short-lived high, numbness and a sense of joy or laughter," explains Mishra. "However, it’s important to note that these perceived positive effects don’t last long."
Because the euphoric effect is short lived, teens may repeatedly inhale the vapors "over and over again in a small time frame, increasing the harmful risks of using whippets," says Mishra.
Patel adds that nitrous oxide may also be appealing to teens because it’s accessible and "falsely perceived" to be safe.
Are whippets seen as less harmful than other drugs?
Yes, say experts. "There is a perception that whippets are safe because they're considered a 'legal high' — we see media portrayals of laughing gas, it is used in a medical setting, and it can be obtained at grocery stores," points out Patel. "Whippets are also cheaply obtained, and most undesired side effects are temporary and reversible. In essence, it's a set up as an easy access party drug."
Mishra agrees, saying that many teenagers abuse whippets because nitrous oxide is "less stigmatized" and perceived as less harmful than other inhalants. "While certain gases and aerosol sprays are known to contain harmful toxins, whipped cream cans appear harmless, especially because they are easily accessible and affordable," he says. "In addition to being found in whipped cream containers, nitrous oxide might also be sold in many smoke shops in small aluminum cans called 'chargers.'"
What signs should parents look out for that might signal their teen is doing whippets?
"Parents play a paramount role when it comes to educating their children about the dangers of inhaling nitrous oxide — or abuse of any substance for that matter," says Patel. "Parents should be aware of the dangers of inhaling nitrous oxide."
There are several warning signs that parents can be on the lookout for. Some of the physical signs of a teen who is abusing whippets can include a lack of coordination, distorted sight and speech, weakness, numbness, cognitive problems and hallucinations.
"Parents might also notice mood changes, secrecy, lying and other behavioral changes," notes Mishra. Paraphernalia such as pressurized cans (including whipped cream canisters), metal cartridges and balloons can all indicate whippet use.
"Because the effects are short-lived," says Patel, "it's more likely a parent will discover the different devices used than catch their teens high."
If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, contact Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Treatment Referral Helpline at 800-662-HELP (4357)
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