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Nitrous oxide is a colourless gas that is commonly used for sedation and pain relief, but is also used by people to feel intoxicated or high. It is commonly used by dentists and medical professionals to sedate patients undergoing minor medical procedures. It is also increasingly being used to treat people withdrawing from alcohol dependence.

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Laughing gas and the philosopher

The UK government is moving to ban the sale of nitrous oxide to clubbers and partygoers because of its dangers, but some users are protesting that the move is unfair. Exactly how dangerous is the gas? Empty silver canisters of nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, have become a common sight outside clubs across the UK. Last July, more than 1, were reported to have been confiscated on just one Saturday night in London's Shoreditch.

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The anaesthetic gas is still used for pain relief during dentistry and childbirth but outside of that legitimate arena there has been a legal grey area for years. It's already illegal to sell to unders if there is a risk they will inhale it. But it remains easy for adults to buy.

Mainstream online vendors advertise the product, although usually indicating that it is to be used for the production of whipped cream.

Immediate effects can include

The product reviews usually suggest otherwise. One re: "Quality product, I ordered on a Friday and chargers were meant to come on Tuesday but arrived on the next day, good laugh with mates at a festival… er, I mean in the kitchen whipping cream. Now the UK government plans to include nitrous oxide in a bill which will make it illegal to sell "psychoactive substances". Possession - with no intent to supply - and use will remain legal.

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But some argue that the ban is unfair. On Saturday, protesters from the Psychedelic Society pressure group will inhale laughing gas outside Parliament.

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It was discovered in by British scientist Joseph Priestley and within 30 years the chemist Humphry Davy was using it recreationally. Davy began inviting his friends round to inhale the gas from oiled silk bags and in doing so started a craze.

Effects of nitrous oxide

When you start coming out of this trance-like state you often get these giggles. Recreational use of nitrous oxide has not always been common. The controversial movie Kids shows one of the characters using it, but the popularity of the gas has increased dramatically in the past five years, says Stephen Ream, a director of drug charity Re-Solv.

At last, with immense effort, he wrote down the secret before the vision had faded.

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When completely recovered, he rushed to see what he had written. It was: A smell of petroleum prevails throughout.

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In the past year, only people in the Netherlands used it more. Insomepeople took nitrous oxide, according to the Home Office. It's especially popular with young people, with 7. This was a greater proportion than took cocaine 4. There have, however, been 17 fatalities related to the use of laughing gas in the UK between andaccording to research.

Nitrous oxide

The US records about 15 deaths a year. Ina year-old man was found dead at his home in Birmingham next to a large cylinder of nitrous oxide. A plastic bag was also found nearby, it was reported.

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The pathologist concluded that he had died from asphyxia due to inhaling the gas. Others have also taken severe risks by using medical tanks and masks.

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But the majority of people who consume the gas, according to research, do so using balloons. Most of the deaths in the UK have been asphyxiations involving plastic bags, says Dr John Ramsey, a toxicologist who was part of the team that helped compile the death datausing coroner's reports at St George's, University of London.

As well as the danger of asphyxiation, when the gas comes out of a canister it can be so cold it can burn.

What is nitrous oxide?

A cold shock at the back of the throat can affect the vagus nerve, causing the heart rate to suddenly slow. Researchers say that the of people who die from inhaling nitrous oxide is actually low when compared with the of people taking the drug every year.

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Death rates can be difficult to compare but in nitrous oxide was linked to one death - this was fewer than heroin and morphine 2,cocaineecstasy 13 and cannabis seven. The of laughing gas deaths is fewer than those killed each year by helium, says David Nutt, professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College, London and former UK government drugs adviser. He argues that laughing gas is actually "exceptionally safe" considering the s who use it. If you breathe nothing but nitrous for 10 minutes you will die, but I don't think there's any evidence that nitrous kills people if you use it recreationally.

But to some critics, the dangers are clear.

Nitrous oxide

Breathing in high concentrations of laughing gas can quickly reduce the blood's level of oxygen. On a night out, in an uncontrolled environment, there is a risk that people can start feeling sleepy as they inhale the gas and pass out, says Dr Anna-Maria Rollin from the Royal College of Anaesthetists.

In March, doctors from the Royal Alexandrren's Hospital in Brighton warned against using laughing gas after a teenager arrived in their emergency unit with breathing difficulties. She had inhaled a considerable quantity at a festival and air had leaked into the space between her lung and chest wall which can cause the lung to collapse.

Possible side effects of laughing gas

Heavy use can also deplete the body's stores of vitamin B12, causing anaemia and nerve damage. People often use nitrous oxide in conjunction with cannabis or alcohol, explains Shirley Cramer, chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health.

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That too is a concern, she says, as it increases the risks involved. Source: Frank. But in general, most users are not consuming laughing gas heavily and at that level it is "a remarkably safe drug", says Winstock, "unless you are drunk or high on other drugs and you happen to do it in the middle of the road and you fall over".

Perhaps the greatest danger is that more young people end up inhaling gases that they think are nitrous oxide but are in fact a dangerous substitute. When year-old Joseph Benett died init was reported as a death from laughing gas.

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He had in fact consumed a cocktail of gases including butane and pentane from a can brought back from Israel. It's certainly not right or normal to inhale a gas for intoxication, he says. Image source, Getty Images. Laughing gas and the philosopher.

Image source, PA. Nitrous oxide. Related Topics. Drug use.

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