Woman left paralysed after getting addicted to laughing gas balloons

·5-min read
Photo credit: Corinne Poleij - Getty Images
Photo credit: Corinne Poleij - Getty Images

If you've been to a festival, party or even just outside of your house in recent years, it's likely you'll have come into contact with nitrous oxide in some capacity (even if it's just spotting the silver bullet-like canisters used to dispense it in the streets). Those who take the drug recreationally often do so by inhaling the gas from a balloon – but now, experts and users are speaking out about the potential dangers of it, saying that it can lead to nerve damage. Nitrous oxide is also used in some medical settings, such as during labour (when it is typically mixed with oxygen).

One 25-year-old woman in particular, Kerry Donaldson, is keen to warn others about the addictive potential that nitrous oxide (also known as nos, whippits or laughing gas) can have, after she suffered severe spinal problems following excess use.

Kerry, who now uses a wheelchair, said via The Times that she started using balloons at the age of 18 and increased her intake at the age of 20, by which point she leapt from using a few boxes once every couple of months to using six to ten boxes (each holding 24 canisters) in a single weekend.

One morning, she awoke and found she was unable to stand with a tingling in her limbs. After seeking medical help, Kerry was informed by doctors that it was likely due to nerve damage caused by nos. She was given B12 injections to help repair her nervous system but shortly after, despite this huge wake up call, Kerry sadly continued to take laughing gas on a large scale.

"I do understand it was my own fault," she said. "I didn’t know it would get to this extent."

Currently, the government says that the sale of nitrous oxide for psychoactive effects is against the law (following the Psychoactive Substances Act in 2016), but it is not currently a crime to be caught in possession of the drug. It has expressed concerns that this "could be a significant factor resulting in the increasing consumption of the substance".

Speaking about the little-known side effects that nitrous oxide can have, Roz Gittins, Director of Pharmacy at Humankind (a charity offering drugs and alcohol support services), told Cosmopolitan UK, "When people take nitrous oxide they may feel relaxed and calm, and they may also experience euphoria and fits of laughter, which is why it’s been called 'laughing gas'. These effects don't last for long, so people may use it more often to feel this way and sometimes people may become addicted to this."

Gittins explains that heavy use is more likely to result in health problems, like nerve damage or anaemia (due to a lack of vitamin B12). "As it can make people feel light headed they may also be at greater risk of having an accident, particularly if taken in conjunction with other substances such as alcohol. They are also more likely to experience problems if they inhale direct from a canister which can also cause burns, so before inhaling it is safer to first decant it, for example into a balloon.

"Using in a confined space, or medical masks attached to cylinders, should be avoided because breathing problems, including asphyxiation, are more likely to occur if there is not enough good ventilation."

She adds that if people do decide to take nitrous oxide, it's best to make sure they're in a safe and supportive environment, with somebody on hand to seek medical attention in case they need help.

Photo credit: Corinne Poleij
Photo credit: Corinne Poleij

These sentiments are echoed by André Gomes, Communications Lead for Release, the UK's centre of expertise on drugs and drug law, who says that the drug is 'frequently' used and describes it largely as "without harms when used in moderation".

"The harms begin to rise when people use them excessively: while one canister usually contains around 8g of the gas, people that have been physically incapacitated or lost feelings of their limbs happened when they consumed several hundred canisters in short time-spans, and repeatedly over days," Gomes notes. "When over-used repeatedly and very frequently, nitrous oxide can cause vitamin B12 deficiency, and potentially nerve damage. There's also concerns around the way the gas is consumed: asphyxiation can occur if you put a bag around your head, or someone holds a mask on you when inhaling it.

"However it is mostly harmless when used sporadically. That is why there needs to be a public and evidence-based discussion around its harms by the Government, pragmatically explaining the risks of use and advising on safer ways to use it, as well as where to get help if needed."

In terms of the legalities, Gomes believes that criminalising the possession of nitrous oxide will not reduce its use or any more of its potential harms. "We know from research that young people are less likely to seek urgent medical care when the substance they have taken is illegal, we also know criminalisation does not deter use, but a criminal record will have a long lasting negative impact on life chances, especially for young adults."

You can learn more about nitrous oxide on Release's website. For support with anything drug-related or for more information, you can call their helpline on 0207 324 2989 or email ask@release.org.uk

Humankind are also on hand to support, with everything from drug interventions to recovery, and can be reached on 01325 731 160 or via info@humankindcharity.org.uk

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