Nitrous Oxide: Physiological effects
Last modified: Saturday, 20. June 2009 - 2:16 pm
In addition to the Mental effects described above, nitrous oxide impairs motor control and causes a partial insensitivity to pain. Users may lose consciousness at high doses. The intoxication from nitrous is typically short-lived — sometimes lasting under a minute.
Harmful side effects
The biggest risk of nitrous oxide use and abuse is hypoxia, or insufficient oxygen intake. Most abusers take the gas at high concentrations without an oxygen mix. High levels of nitrous oxide in the body can make a person unconscious or even stop breathing. Nitrous oxide displaces oxygen (pushes it out), so there is less of it in the bloodstream. Because the blood carries oxygen throughout the body to “feed” tissues and organs, diminished oxygen capacity can result in brain damage. Lack of oxygen can also cause a loss of consciousness and death by suffocation.
It is this oxygen deprivation that sometimes causes a bluish tinge on the lips of chronic nitrous abusers. After the initial high of nitrous wears off, chronic users may also experience such varied side effects as nausea, visual disturbances (seeing spots), feelings of claustrophobia, fatigue, and difficulty concentrating.
In cases of severe abuse, published studies have described chronic symptoms such as impairment of the nervous system, tingling and/or numbness of the hands and feet, and uncontrolled muscle twitching and movement. These side effects may be related to the depletion of vitamin B12 and folate caused by nitrous oxide abuse. They are usually reversible if nitrous use is stopped.
Because of the extreme cold temperature of nitrous oxide, frostbite of the face, mouth, throat, and hands may occur. In many cases, the injury is made worse by the anesthetic affect of the drug; the nitrous user may do further damage to the skin because he or she does not initially feel the frostbite.
Anyone inhaling gas directly from a nitrous tank valve is vulnerable to frostbite and possible lung damage, in addition to the various side effects already mentioned.
Also, if nitrous users inhale the gas standing up, they will more likely than not fall down — hard — possibly breaking a limb or suffering a head injury.
Also, working with any compressed gas may be dangerous. Although nitrous oxide itself is not flammable, the pressurized contents can explode and cause serious injury if a gas tank or cylinder is improperly stored, or is dropped, knocked over, or punctured.
Long-term health effects
Chronic nitrous oxide abuse can remove a lot of vitamin B12 from the bloodstream. B12 (cobalamin) is necessary for the creation of blood cells and neurotransmitters, as well as the protective layers that cover nerves. This results in nerve damage and pain; balancing, walking, and concentration difficulties; mental impairment; mood disturbances (such as depression); and other physical problems. Chronic nitrous oxide use may also interfere with the production in bone marrow of white blood cells and red blood cells. Treatment with intramuscular injections of B12 may reverse these symptoms.
As a consequence of B12 depletion, levels of folic acid may also be reduced in chronic N20 abusers. Again, supplements may help.
Nitrous oxide abuse may also lead to spontaneous abortion in pregnant women. It also interferes with DNA synthesis. For these reasons, it is not given to pregnant women, particularly in the first two trimesters. Heavy, ongoing nitrous oxide exposure during pregnancy has caused birth defects in animal studies, as well.
It is important to note that there have been no harmful Physiological effects observed in infants born to mothers who are administered nitrous oxide and oxygen during labor itself, as the gas is quickly metabolized. However, a few long-term studies have shown a possible link between heavy nitrous oxide use during labor and the later development of opiate and methamphetamine addiction of offspring in adulthood.
Long-term nitrous oxide exposure may also cause infertility. Several studies of dental workers and mid-wives who had been exposed to low levels of the gas in the workplace found that their fertility was reduced in direct relation to the level and length of exposure. Equipment to limit nitrous oxide levels can be installed in a doctor’s office to reduce this risk.
Individuals with certain chronic illnesses and medical conditions may also suffer severe and potentially fatal side effects from the use of nitrous oxide. For example, anyone with a history of pulmonary hypertension, asthma, airway obstruction, head injury, or chest infection should not take nitrous under any circumstances.
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