nitrous oxide – a laughing matter?

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This week Tottenham and England footballer Kyle Walker has been reprimanded after being photographed inhaling nitrous oxide from a balloon whilst on a night out in Sheffield!


Kyle Walker is not alone in having used nitrous oxide this year.  According to figures from the recently released ‘2012 to 2013 Crime Survey for England and Wales’, 6.1 % of 16 to 24 year olds had tried nitrous oxide in the past year and 2 % of all adults. This makes nitrous oxide only marginally less used than cannabis in the young population (6.4 %).  The widespread use was illustrated when reports circulated last year that Prince Harry had been seen inhaling nitrous oxide from a balloon at a party in London.

Nitrous oxide (N2O) is a legal chemical in the UK, although it is illegal to sell it to someone who you think may abuse it. Most commonly known as laughing gas, nitrous oxide is used as a painkiller, particularly as ‘Entonox’ or ‘gas and air’, which is half oxygen and half nitrous oxide.  This mixture is very commonly used in ambulances, dentistry and childbirth.  The gas is used to numb pain and sedate the patient, although it is not a strong anaesthetic.  Having broken and dislocated my ankle a few years ago I found the entonox to be of great relief whilst being transferred to hospital, more so than the morphine they also administered.

Nitrous oxide may also be abused to relax the user, produce feelings of euphoria (‘the giggles’ – hence laughing gas) and mild sedation up to a more dissociated state.  This is where the body feels slightly separated from your mind.  It is reported that some people have experienced hallucinations whilst using nitrous oxide.

The most common method of using nitrous oxide is through inhaling the pure gas out of a balloon.  Nitrous oxide may also be purchased in cylinders or cartridges such as the one shown above which is for a whipped cream dispenser.  The commercial cylinders may be pure nitrous oxide rather than a mix with oxygen.

There are possible harmful effects from the use of nitrous oxide – mainly suffocation to due to lack of oxygen.  In the normal atmosphere oxygen is at around 21 % volume.  If pure nitrous oxide is inhaled then there will be no oxygen getting to the vital organs in the body. This is not sustainable for very long at all so could lead to death.  It is very hard for a user to determine when they have had enough increasing the risk again.

Whilst it is legal I am sure it’s widespread use will continue, although I wouldn’t be surprised to see a crackdown on its sale.


It was announced last night that Kyle Walker would face no charges by the Football Association, who commented “Kyle has accepted this mistake. He will not face any action under the England player code of conduct.”


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Dr Tom Bassindale

About Dr Tom Bassindale

Dr Tom Bassindale is a forensic scientist, and the founder of We Are Forensic. He's managed hundreds of forensic toxicology cases, and is an experienced court witness. He has specialist expertise in forensic toxicology and drug testing in sport. Dr B is currently a senior lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University. And yes... he watches CSI.