Laughing gas, scientifically known as nitrous oxide (N2O), is a simple gas that is odorless and non-flammable at room temperature. It is called laughing gas due to the euphoria it produces when people inhale it. Of the three early anesthetics of the modern era of anesthesia (ether, chloroform, and nitrous oxide) only nitrous is currently used on a regular basis.
Nitrous oxide was first discovered by Joseph Priestley, an English cleric, in the early 1770s. In 1800, Humphry Davy inhaled nitrous and experienced a pleasant sensation and a reduced sensitivity to pain. Shortly afterward, he coined the term "laughing gas." From 1800 to the mid 1840s, nitrous was used recreationally for entertainment at public shows. In 1844, Dr. Horace Wells, an American dentist, observed a public demonstration of nitrous oxide and theorized about its effectiveness in dental procedures. The next day, Dr. Wells had a colleague extract an infected tooth after inhaling nitrous. The results were encouraging, and Dr. Wells began to use nitrous for dental procedures.
While not a sufficiently strong anesthetic for surgery, nitrous is ideal for dental procedures. Currently, nitrous is used in approximately 1/3 of U.S. dental practices, according to dentistry.com. Because nitrous facilitates the burning of more fuel at a faster rate, it is sometimes used in auto racing. Nitrous oxide chargers (whippets) are used to make whipped cream. Nitrous is non-flammable and impedes bacteria growth, which lends itself to be used as a mixing and foaming agent by the dairy industry.
Available over-the-counter for human consumption, nitrous is not illegal to possess. It is, however, federally regulated under FDA rules. Distribution and sales can be prosecuted under the Food, Drug And Cosmetics Act. Some states have banned the sale and distribution to minors. In many states, such as Florida, recreational use and inhalation for intoxicating purposes is also illegal.
The effects of inhaling nitrous include: time and spatial disorientation, fixated vision, euphoria, tingling sensations in the arms and legs and increased pain threshold. The physical effects of inhaling nitrous oxide usually last for several minutes. Residual effects may last several additional minutes. Nevertheless, the effects dissipate rapidly, which makes nitrous unlike most other drugs.
There are many productive uses for nitrous, but there are several dangers associated with its use. If it is used recreationally, it must be combined with 20 percent oxygen, or it may induce hypoxia. Hypoxia, which causes decreased oxygen content of the blood, can lead to brain damage. Because nitrous use causes a loss of motor control, inhalation while standing puts the user in danger of falling down or bumping into objects. Regular use causes a vitamin B12 deficiency, which can lead to hyperhomocysteinemia, an accumulation of the amino acid homocysteine in the blood. Hyperhomocysteinemia is a blood disorder that is a risk factor for heart disease, inflammation and vascular damage.