N₂O: What Is It?
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Laughing Gas, Nitrous, N₂O: What Is It?

2 min
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Before nitrogen made its name as a reliable analgesia and oxidizer, it was used as a recreational substance at British "laughing gas parties." In this article, we take a look at laughing gas's chemical composition, its history, and its many uses.

Laughing gas (also known as nitrous, nitrous oxide, or N₂O) is a type of gas readily used in the medical, racing, and food industries. It also doubles as an inexpensive, low-risk recreational substance that’s legal in most countries and produces a nice, short-lived euphoria.

But what exactly is nitrous? In this article, we explore this popular gas in more detail, including its structure, uses, and history.


Nitrous oxide is a chemical compound commonly known as laughing gas or simply "nitrous". At room temperature, nitrous is a colourless and non-flammable gas that smells and tastes slightly sweet and/or metallic. Nitrous consists of two main compounds; nitrogen and oxygen. Its chemical formula, N₂O, reveals that each nitrous molecule consists of 2 parts nitrogen and 1 part oxygen.


N2O As Anaesthetic And Analgesic

Nitrous has a vast variety of uses. It is very commonly used in the medical industry (especially during operations or dental surgery) as an anaesthetic and analgesic. In fact, nitrous oxide has been used in medicine since the mid 19th century.

Dentists most commonly use nitrous oxide as an analgesic as it leaves patients with enough mental capacity to still respond to questions and remain functional while effectively relieving pain. However, nitrous can also be used to relieve pain during childbirth, trauma surgery, and acute coronary conditions.

Outside of medicine, nitrous can also be used as an oxidizer in rocket motors. In fact, nitrous is very competitive when compared to other oxidizers because it is non-toxic, easy to store, and relatively safe to transport on flights.

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Nitrous oxide is also used in motor racing (where it is often referred to as simply nitrous). More specifically, it is used to pass more oxygen through the engine, allowing more fuel and air to hit the cylinders, ultimately increasing the speed of a vehicle for a short burst of time.

Nitrous oxide can also be used as an aerosol propellant and is approved as a food additive. Hence, it is commonly found in whipped cream cans, cooking sprays, and as a “filler” gas instead of oxygen in snack food packaging to inhibit bacterial growth.


The History Of Nitrous

Nitrous oxide was first synthesized in 1772 by Joseph Priestley, an English chemist. In 1794, a book titled Considerations on the Medical Use and on the Production of Factitious Airs first explored the potential medical use of nitrous gas.

James Watt, one of the authors, had developed a machine to produce nitrous as well as a breathing apparatus allowing patients to inhale it. The book also presented new medical theories that the gas could help treat tuberculosis and other lung diseases.

By 1798, clinical trials with nitrous began. By 1800, medical researchers had noted the gas’ analgesic properties but it wouldn't go on to be used as an anaesthetic till the mid 19th century.

In fact, before nitrogen became a common analgesic it was used recreationally, mainly by the British upper class, at unique “laughing gas parties”.


Nitrous For Recreational Use

One of the main side effects caused by inhaling nitrous is a strong euphoria, which is why it is colloquially referred to as “laughing gas.” In fact, laughing gas is a relatively common recreational substance, listed as the 7th most popular drug in the 2016 Global Drug Survey. It is most commonly used in Britain.

People with access to nitrous gas bottles will usually pump the gas into a balloon and then inhale it from the balloon into the lungs.

Alternatively, people also extract the gas from whipped cream containers. This is done by letting the can sit upright for about an hour, allowing the cream to move to the bottom of the container. The user then pops their mouth over the dispenser and presses the trigger slightly, allowing only the gas to escape.

The popularity of laughing gas as a recreational drug comes as no surprise. The gas is legal in most countries, inexpensive, easy to administer, and produces reliable, yet short-lived bursts of euphoria.

Laughing gas is also commonly used in combination with other recreational substances in order to enhance their effects.

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Laughing Gas Can Cause Dizziness

As with most recreational substances, there are some adverse effects of using nitrous or laughing gas. However, it is generally considered to be a low-risk substance.

Inhaling laughing gas can cause dizziness as well as vomiting or nausea (a common side effect after surgery where the gas was used as an anaesthetic). The inhalation of nitrous can also damage the lungs.

Apart from the health effects, nitrous gas released into the atmosphere has been proven to damage the ozone layer. Roughly 30% of all atmospheric nitrogen is believed to be caused by human activity, especially agriculture.

Steven Voser

Written by: Steven Voser
Steven Voser is an Emmy Award Nominated freelance journalist with a lot of experience under his belt. Thanks to a passion for all things cannabis, he now dedicates a lot of his times exploring the world of weed.

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