Final exams were over and 18-year-old Hamish Bidgood was partying alongside many others at an annual week-long celebration. That night, though, was to be his last. He did whippets for hours before reportedly hallucinating, pushing past his friends and throwing himself off an 11th-floor hotel balcony. (Lock, 2018)
Whether called noz, hippie crack, or laughing gas – or spelled whippets, whippits, or whip-its – it all refers to inhaling nitrous oxide. The euphoric effects last only seconds or minutes, yet whippets can lead to long-term consequences. These include irreversible brain and nerve damage, memory loss, heart attack, coma, and even death.
Bidgood is not the only one to suffer disastrous effects from whippets. A Sydney, Australia university student sustained permanent spinal cord damage after going through 360 canisters a week. (Lock, 2018) Eighteen-year-old Ohio University student Collin Wiant died after doing whippets during an extensive hazing episode (Paton, 2019) and 17-year-old John Schoenig also died of chemical asphyxia from whippets. No traces of alcohol were in his blood. (Darville, 2019)
The danger is not limited to the person doing whippets. Actions taken while high on whippets can harm others, too. Jose Perez, 22, was high on whippets when he caused a 2017 California crash that led to the death of an 11-year-old girl. (Queally, 2018)
Here are 13 things you need to know about the not-so-harmless drug commonly called whippets.
Whippets involve a legal substance
Used as anesthesia for dental and surgical procedures since the mid-1800s, nitrous oxide is a colorless, odorless to sweet-smelling gas.
It is legal to both obtain and possess in the United States.
Nitrous oxide is used in whipped cream canisters, for instance. Whippet users simply remove the nitrous oxide canister, crack it open and use it to get high. Some release the gas into a balloon first before breathing it in. Whipped cream canister refills, nitrous oxide tanks used to boost a car’s speed and restaurant supplies that power whipped cream machines are all also used for whippets.
There seems to be ready access to nitrous oxide for people of all ages. Tanks are sold online at Wal-Mart and at auto parts stores. A simple trip to the local grocery store can yield nitrous oxide in the form of whipped cream canisters.
State laws can and do regulate the sale and use of nitrous oxide, however.
Many states do not allow it to be sold to minors. Some states criminally prosecute those who distribute or use it with the intent of getting intoxicated or for its mind-altering effects.
In Florida, for example, it’s unlawful to inhale or ingest nitrous oxide in order to become intoxicated. It’s also illegal to possess, buy, sell or transfer it for that purpose as well. If more than 16 grams are involved in the sale, purchase, transfer or even possession, it’s a felony of the third degree. The use of nitrous oxide in medical procedures is excluded. (The Florida Legislature, 2020)
Nitrous oxide is also regulated on the federal level by the Food and Drug Administration.
Whippets started way back in the 1700s
Nitrous oxide was first synthesized in 1772. Just a few years later, there are accounts of it being abused, especially among medical and dental professionals who had access to the gas. (Thompson et al., 2015)
English chemist Humphry Davy is one example. His book, written in 1800, details his and other’s experience doing whippets. He would even offer a silken bag of whippets to his party guests, calling the gatherings “laughing gas parties.” (Public Domain Review)
Whippets remained restricted to the upper class until 1863 because the equipment used to make nitrous oxide was in short supply. Students at medical universities, however, discovered its properties and began doing whippets.
After it became more widely available, regulations on nitrous oxide started popping up. Nevertheless, the abuse still continued. Healthcare providers, their staff and restaurant workers would provide nitrous oxide at parties.
In fact, a 1972 Consumers Union report found that whippets were “prevalent” in the United States and Canada at the time. (Brecher)
Whippets are popular – especially among teens
Whippets are now the seventh most popular drug in the world. (Chen et al., 2018)
In fact, the use of inhalants – the class of drugs to which whippets belong – is increasing, according to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health:
- Inhalant use climbed 14% over 2018 for all people 12 or older.
- Those in the 12-to-17 and 18-to-25 age groups had double-digit increases in use in the past year
- Inhalant use among older adults has increased 33 percent since 2015.
- Younger teens (12-17 years old) are almost twice as likely to have used inhalants in the past year than the 18-to-25 age group.
(Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration)
Whippets can affect brain development
Here’s why inhalant use among teens and young adults is a big concern: The prefrontal cortex undergoes significant development between 18 to 25 years of age.
This area of the brain takes in information, coordinates actions and thoughts and allows for the use of judgment and forethought.
In other words, the pre-frontal cortex allows you the opportunity to stop and think about the consequences of your actions… before you take them.
Unfortunately, using whippets can impair this development. (Ehirim, Naughton, & Petróczi, 2018)
Whippets displace oxygen
There is a reason nitrous oxide is mixed with oxygen when given as anesthesia. Inhaling pure nitrous oxide can lead to asphyxiation.
This risk of dying due to lack of oxygen is particularly high if:
- Whippets are inhaled quickly, with no fresh-air breaths in between
- They are done in a confined space
- The user puts a plastic bag over their head while doing whippets
Because nitrous oxide depresses your central nervous system, death can occur with either sudden, extended exposure or with repeated inhalations. It can be a matter of seconds, not minutes. (Compressed Gas Association, 2019)
Not only that, but the brain – as do all other vital organs and systems – relies on oxygenated blood from the lungs to survive.
Common sense tells us that, if the oxygen is being displaced from your lungs, it is depriving all your organs of oxygenated blood as well.
In fact, your brain needs a continual flow of oxygen in order to function the way it should. Any interruption can cause brain damage in mere minutes.
After doing a whippet, your body works harder to get oxygen to the brain by causing your heart to beat faster. (Drug Science, 2020) Even with the body working furiously to counteract nitrous oxide’s effects, brain cell death and neuron damage can occur. This can both slow down and even stop some brain functions. Cell death is most notable in the area of learning and memory. (Columbia University)
Whippets can cause vitamin B-12 deficiency
Vitamin B-12 keeps your blood and nerve cells healthy.
It also prevents megaloblastic anemia, a condition which makes you feel weak and tired, and aids in the making of DNA.
A deficiency can cause:
- Balance issues
- Loss of appetite
- Memory issues
- Mouth and tongue soreness
- Nerve problems/numbness and tingling in feet and hands
- Weight loss
(National Institutes of Health)
A B-12 deficiency can also destroy nerve cells and damage neurons.
Neurons generate the signals that nerves carry to the body. They are covered by a sheath called myelin. When this sheath breaks down (a condition called myeloneuropathy), it can damage the brain.
Vitamin B-12 is essential for myelin sheath production – and damage to that sheath causes neurological problems, including:
- Problems with movement
- Loss of bladder control
In one study, only a quarter (25%) of whippet users fully recovered from nerve damage with intensive B-12 treatment. (Columbia University)
A lack of vitamin B-12 can also elevate homocysteine levels. This can damage arteries and cause blood clots to form.
Even those exposed to nitrous oxide during surgery are at risk. Clinical studies have shown there is a risk of cardiovascular issues after the use of nitrous oxide in a medical operation. (Savage, 2014)
Whippets have other side effects
Beyond the potential hypoxia and asphyxiation, vitamin B-12 deficiency, and elevated homocysteine levels, huffing nitrous oxide can have other negative effects.
- Abnormal/slowed heart rate
- Anemia (low hemoglobin levels)
- Bone marrow production impairment
- Decreased blood pressure
- Excessive sweating
- Feeling tired/weak
- Heart attack
- Memory impairment
- Slowed reaction time
- Sound distortions
- Sudden death
Whippets can cause throat and vocal cord damage
Using inhalants directly from a pressurized canister blasts your lips, mouth and throat with air that is approximately minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
This can cause frostbite, throat muscle spasm as well as damage your throat and vocal cords.
That’s not all. The intense pressure can rupture lung tissue and halt breathing. Faulty dispensers can even explode. Cracking open nitrous oxide with a cracker that has been reused can cold-burn your hands as well.
You can be allergic to whippets
It is possible to be allergic to nitrous oxide. Reactions include:
- Blistering/peeling skin
- Breathing problems
- Chest or throat tightness
- Facial swelling
- Mouth/tongue/throat swelling
- Talking/swallowing difficulty
(Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center)
You can overdose on whippets
Again, the high from inhaling nitrous oxide only lasts a few seconds. To continue the high, users will sometimes use repeatedly over a short period of time. This can lead to overdose.
Overdose also occurs when too much nitrous oxide is inhaled at once, as well as from long-term exposure.
Signs of overdose include:
- Bluish tint to the toes, fingers or lips
- Breathing difficulty
- Chest tightness
- Eye, nose and throat irritation
Even though the user may not feel it, heart rate and blood pressure increase, upping the risk of heart attack, stroke, seizures and brain damage.
Overdosing on whippets can lead to a coma or death.
Certain medical conditions make doing whippets more dangerous
If you are pregnant or have a history of respiratory illness, mental health conditions or substance abuse, doing whippets is more dangerous for you.
A vitamin B-12 deficiency also puts you at a higher risk.
People with a heart condition and/or high blood pressure can be more at risk as well.
Mixing whippets with alcohol increases the risk
Combining nitrous oxide with alcohol ups the risks of both substances.
You may feel sluggish, experience confusion, be unable to concentrate, and even lose control of your bodily functions.
Both substances depress the central nervous system — slowing your breathing. This increases your risk of overdosing.
Drinking and doing whippets also puts you at risk for having an accident, passing out, choking on vomit and dying.
Whippets have long-term consequences
Some effects from nitrous oxide abuse are hard to shake. They can include:
- Memory loss
- Birth defects (if consumed while pregnant)
- Brain and nerve damage from long-term vitamin B-12 depletion
- Numbness in hands or feet
- Reproductive system disruption
- Spasms in your limbs
- Weakened immune system
As you can see, laughing gas is not a harmless drug. It is potentially deadly, by a variety of means.
If you have been using whippets, the best thing to do is to stop. If you need help doing so, a qualified addiction treatment center can provide you with a supportive, clinical environment in which to heal.
If it’s your loved one you are concerned about, watch for the signs. Although they may be hard to recognize, the American Academy of Family Physicians recommends you look for:
- Bloodshot eyes
- Chapped lips or face
- Funny odor on their breath
- Memory loss
- Runny nose
- Trouble sleeping
- Vision Problems
(Anderson & Loomis, 2003)
It’s especially important to be aware of the possibility of inhalant abuse among young teenagers – starting as young as 12 years old. Nitrous oxide is not illegal, more readily available than other drugs and not expensive. Thus, inhalants can be the first drug many kids try.
Whether it’s you or a loved one using whippets, the best course of action is to stop. Since it’s possible to become addicted to whippets, seek the help of a qualified addiction treatment center if need be.
Remember, too, that the definition of addiction is continuing to use despite experiencing serious negative consequences. A brief look through the list provided here should be enough evidence of negative consequences to help you make the decision to act now.
Lock, S. (2018, December 13). Dad of schoolie Hamish Bidgood who fell and died while high calls for nitrous oxide to be banned. Retrieved November 30, 2020, from Daily Mail
Paton, C. (2019, February 15). An Ohio student was suffocated by nitrous oxide in an “extensive hazing” and forced to drink a gallon of alcohol. Retrieved November 30, 2020, from Newsweek
Darville, S. (2019, December 12). Coroner: Teen’s death caused by nitrous oxide while inhaling ‘whip-its’; ruled accidental. Retrieved November 30, 2020, from WJACTV
Queally, J. (2018, November 01). Boyle Heights driver was high on nitrous oxide when he crashed and killed 11-year-old, prosecutors say. Retrieved November 30, 2020, from LA Times
The Florida Legislature. (2020, November 28). The 2020 Florida Statutes. Retrieved November 30, 2020, from The Florida Legislature
Thompson, A., Leite, M., Lunn, M., & Bennett, D. (2015, June). Whippits, nitrous oxide and the dangers of legal highs. Retrieved November 30, 2020, from National Institutes of Health
Public Domain Review. (n.d.). The Nitrous Oxide Experiments of Humphry Davy. Retrieved November 30, 2020, from Public Domain Review
Brecher, E. (n.d.). The Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs. Retrieved November 30, 2020, from Drug Library
Chen, T., Zhong, N., Jiang, H., Zhao, M., Chen, Z., & Sun, H. (2018, February 25). Neuropsychiatric Symptoms Induced by Large Doses of Nitrous Oxide Inhalation: A Case Report. Retrieved November 30, 2020, from National Institutes of Health
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (n.d.). 2019 National Survey of Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) Releases. Retrieved November 30, 2020, from Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
Ehirim, E., Naughton, D., & Petróczi, A. (2018, January 22). No Laughing Matter: Presence, Consumption Trends, Drug Awareness, and Perceptions of “Hippy Crack” (Nitrous Oxide) among Young Adults in England. Retrieved November 30, 2020, from National Institutes of Health
Compressed Gas Association. (2019, January 04). Nitrous Oxide Facts. Retrieved November 30, 2020, from Compressed Gas Association
Drug Science. (2020, November 18). Nitrous oxide (laughing gas). Retrieved November 30, 2020, from Drug Science
Columbia University. (n.d.). Nitrous oxide. Retrieved November 30, 2020, from https://goaskalice.columbia.eud/answered-questions/nitrous-oxide
National Institutes of Health. (n.d.). Office of Dietary Supplements – Vitamin B12. Retrieved November 30, 2020, from National Institutes of Health
Savage, S., & Ma, D. (2014, January 28). The neurotoxicity of nitrous oxide: The facts and “putative” mechanisms. Retrieved November 30, 2020, from National Institutes of Health
Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. (n.d.). Nitrous Oxide. Retrieved November 30, 2020, from https://www.mskcc.org/cancer-care/patient-education/nitrous-oxide-01
Anderson, C., & Loomis, G. (2003, September 01). Is Your Child Abusing Inhalants? Retrieved November 30, 2020, from American Academy of Family Physicians