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How Nitrous Oxide Works

Recreational Use (and Abuse) of Nitrous Oxide
A sign advertising laughing gas is prominently displayed in the party island of Ko Phangan, Thailand.
A sign advertising laughing gas is prominently displayed in the party island of Ko Phangan, Thailand.
Matthew Micah Wright/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images

Centuries before buzz-chasing ravers sucked on balloons of nitrous oxide inside London dance clubs, there was Humphry Davy, the self-experimenting scientist who stumbled upon nitrous oxide's more pleasurable properties. Starting in 1799, Davy invited a growing circle of scientific colleagues, philosophers, writers and statesmen to partake of this euphoric gas during wild, late-night huffing parties [source: Watt].

Throughout the entirety of the 19th and early 20th century, the recreational use of nitrous oxide among high-society huffers was well-documented. Several early motion pictures were titled "Laughing Gas," including a 1914 short starring Charlie Chaplin as a prankster posing as a dentist.

In the 1970s, balloons filled with nitrous oxide (often just called "nitrous" on the street) began appearing at rock festivals and sold for 25 cents a pop [source: Wolfson]. Unlike the prolonged exposure preferred by Davy — in which the scientist experienced deeply hallucinatory revelations — a balloon full of nitrous delivers a numbing, swelling dizziness followed by the irrepressible urge to giggle.

In the U.K., where nitrous oxide is legal to possess for recreational use, 7.6 percent of young people ages 16-24 interviewed in 2014 said they had used nitrous oxide in the past year — about twice as many as had experimented with the popular club drug ecstasy or with cocaine [source: Wolfson].

Nitrous oxide is illegal to sell or possess in the United States for recreational use. But is inhaling N20 actually bad for you? Prolonged exposure to nitrous oxide will steal oxygen from brain cells, killing them in the process (apoptosis). The gas can also damage the protective covering of neurons called myelin, which may lead to long-term learning difficulties. But the real danger of huffing nitrous has little to do with brain chemistry — the most serious "side effects" are broken bones and head traumas suffered by people who fall down while buzzed [source: Go Ask Alice].