When you think about drugs that threaten the health of teens, whipped cream could be the last thing that comes to mind. But the pressurized containers used to store canned whipped cream contain a propellant gas called nitrous oxide, which can be inhaled quickly by mouth to get a brief but intoxicating rush. Nitrous oxide is also sold in miniature canisters called “whippets” — inexpensive containers that have become popular among teens in search of a cheap high.
In surgical and dental settings, nitrous oxide is used as a short-term anesthetic. Because this colorless, odorless gas can create euphoric sensations, it is commonly known as “laughing gas.” Teens may believe that because nitrous oxide is used in medical settings and has no strong-smelling fumes, it is safer than inhalants like gasoline, paint thinner or glue.
Risks of Nitrous Oxide Abuse
Inhaling nitrous oxide from whipped cream canisters, whippets or balloons can deprive the brain of oxygen, potentially causing unconsciousness, seizures or death. George Washington University reports that many deaths from nitrous oxide occur when the user loses consciousness and strikes his head on the ground or a sharp object.
Nausea, vomiting, dizziness, numbness, slurred speech, confusion, hallucinations and fainting are the short-term side effects of inhaling whippets. Nitrous oxide inhalation affects motor coordination, increasing the risk of a motor vehicle collision or an accidental injury. Teenagers who abuse nitrous oxide on a regular basis may suffer serious long-term complications, including:
- Damage to the heart tissues
- An irregular heartbeat
- Nerve damage
- Bone marrow suppression
The Orange County Register reports that a lack of regulation has led to an increase in the use of nitrous oxide, also known as “nozz,” among teens in Southern California. Large tanks of this gas can be purchased at auto body shops, where it is supposedly sold to enhance car performance. Teens who are too young to purchase liquor can legally purchase large quantities of nitrous oxide from their local auto dealers. The widespread availability of this mind-altering gas has been linked to a number of fatal car accidents among Orange County teens in recent years.
Canisters or tanks of nitrous oxide are often available at parties and raves, where teens inhale this gas while drinking alcohol or taking other drugs. Combining these intoxicants heightens the risk of an overdose, injury or death.
‘Poppers’: A Dangerous Trend
“Poppers” is the street term for inhalant drugs that belong to a chemical class called alkyl nitrites. In a medical setting, amyl nitrite is used legitimately to treat certain heart conditions or as an antidote to cyanide poisoning. But among teens, this drug is used to generate a rush of euphoria and sexual desire. Butyl nitrite and isobutyl nitrite are less common inhalants in the same class.
Like nitrous oxide, amyl nitrite is a vasodilator, which causes the blood vessels to expand quickly. The drug is usually sold in small brown glass vials, which can be broken open and sniffed to get high or enhance intimacy. It is marketed under brand names like “Rush,” “Liquid Gold” and “Kick,” and may be sold as an air freshener, car deodorizer or leather cleaner. If swallowed, amyl nitrite can be fatal.
Helping Teens Recover From Inhalant Abuse
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, whippets and whipped cream canisters are most frequently used by teens ages 16 through 17, while amyl nitrite, another powerful inhalant, is more popular among adults. However, nitrous oxide and amyl nitrite abuse have been reported in teens and adults of all ages.
It’s never too early to intervene in a teenager’s substance abuse, even if the substance seems relatively harmless. For curious teens who like to take risks, inhalant abuse is often the first step in a long, rough path to addiction. The intensive residential treatment program at Muir Wood is aimed at helping boys recover from substance abuse and create brighter, more positive futures. If you’re worried about a young man in your life, we urge you to contact our treatment professionals for help.