Demi Moore’s recent hospitalisation caused a worldwide media frenzy. After entertainment news website TMZ broke the story, the two most popular searches on Google were “Demi Moore” and “nitrous oxide”. To many, the latter term might come as a surprise. Usually, when we hear that a celebrity has been rushed to hospital for a drug-related incident, we expect to hear about Hollywood’s usual favourites: heroin, cocaine and prescription painkillers.

Nitrous oxide belongs to a category of drugs known as inhalants. More commonly referred to as “whip-its” or “whippets”, it is taken by inhaling the nitrous oxide from aerosol cans that use nitrous oxide chargers. These include, but are not limited to, cooking spray and whipped cream – this, of course, is where the habit got its nickname from. Users will first empty out the cans into a balloon or plastic bag to make the inhalation process easier.

However, the use of this drug for recreational purposes is uncommon for people of Moore’s age. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health in the United States, two million American teenagers had abused inhalants such as nitrous oxide in the year 2009. Sadly, this trend has also made an appearance among South African teens. Just last year, a 15-year-old pupil from Crawford College in Sandton died after inhaling a household spray in an attempt to get high.

But why is this drug so popular among the youth? Two reasons: first, it is easily attainable (and legal), and second, according to medical professionals, the effect of nitrous oxide inhalation can mimic the intensity of other more addictive psychoactive drugs. Although only a brief high of a minute or two is experienced, Dr Harris Stratyner of the Caron Treatment Center in New York says that inhaling this gas results in a feeling of euphoria while experiencing an out-of-body sensation. Stratyner maintains that it is not all fun and games. “If you use a lot of it, you’re not going to wake up,” he says. Hypoxia of the brain, a condition in which the brain is deprived of oxygen – and consequently dies – is a very common result of inhalant abuse. “Dark holes” in the brain have been recorded in patients who participate in nitrous oxide inhalation. Other effects include a feeling of warmth and a sense of disorientation, but also nausea, vitamin B-12 deficiency (which can lead to anaemia), blood vessel haemorrhages in the lungs, cardiac arrest, seizures and even the possibility of falling into a coma. The drug is also known to stimulate weight loss and to cause depression and memory loss.

Back in the 1800s when its properties were first discovered it was a fashionable drug used among poets and aristocrats at “laughing gas parties”.

“Those who inhale the gas once are always anxious to inhale it a second time,” states a recovered pamphlet for a Victorian laughing party. Although addiction was not medically classified as a disease back then, its history is clearly an indication that the gas has always had the tendency to be addictive.

Today, nitrous oxide has an important function in the medical industry. Dentists use the gas before dental procedures and local anaesthetics (such as novocaine injections) are administered. However, under these conditions the gas is regulated with oxygen because nitrous oxide displaces oxygen in the human body, causing carbon dioxide levels to rise. It is this increase in carbon dioxide that leads to shortness of breath, loss of consciousness and ultimately the possibility of damage to the brain.

A gas which is also used in race cars to increase power output of engines can evidently not be safe for the human body, especially when abused.

As far as treatment of the addiction goes, it’s highly unlikely that someone will enter rehab for nitrous oxide addiction because often the gas cannot be detected in urine or blood-screening tests. It’s therefore the responsibility of informed society members to help the people that they think might be addicted. The most common signs of abuse include chemical odours on the individual’s clothing or breath, an unusual amount of empty containers being disposed of in their home, and sores around the mouth. Although rehabilitation centres for inhalant abuse are rare and difficult to find, there are organisations that can help. The National Inhalant Prevention Coalition, WeDoRecover and other similar organisations aid you in locating relevant treatment centres in your vicinity.

Despite proof of negative long-term health effects and a number of recorded deaths each year, it appears that little public attention is given to nitrous oxide inhalation. It is at times like these that we must ask: is it our responsibility as a society to make sure that this drug habit remains a topic of discussion?

Illustration: René Lombard

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