Title: Nitrous Oxide and Nitrite Inhalants: Just Say N2O
Author: Susan Merci
Publisher: Do It Now Foundation
Publication Date: February 2011
Catalog Number: 142

..Fast Laughs

To some
people, nitrite inhalants and nitrous oxide are a lot of laughs.

That’s one
reason the chemicals are popular among people looking for quick,
cheap thrills.

And nitrous
oxide (commonly known as “laughing gas”) and the nitrites
mostly seem to fit the bill: They’re cheap and easy to get (sometimes
legally) in clubs and boutiques and through mail-order magazine

Still, that
doesn’t make them harmless. According to the best available data,
nitrous oxide and other inhalants figure into at least 100 deaths
a year in the U.S. alone.

That’s why
we put together this pamphlet. Because once you start digging,
you realize that nitrites aren’t harmless, and some of the problems
they cause aren’t that funny, either.

And the deeper
you dig, the more dirt you discover.

..Amyl Nitrite & the High-Strung Heart

More than 130
years ago, a chemical was developed to treat angina pectoris,
a painful heart condition. Until then, physicians had often treated
heart disease with phlebotomy, a scientific name for the unscientific
technique of bleeding a patient with leeches to rid the body
of disease-causing “impurities.”

That’s why
angina sufferers were probably pretty pleased in 1867, when a
British physician tried treating the condition with the new chemical,
amyl nitrite.

It worked —
in more ways than one. Because in addition to dilating the blood
vessels of the heart (which eases angina pain), amyl nitrite
also triggers a short, dizzying burst of euphoria.

And it didn’t
take long for that fact to get noted by euphoria seekers, English
and otherwise.

..Fast Forward: How Now

Although it’s
still not clearly understood how, exactly, amyl works, what happens
when it does sure is.

Once inhaled,
it triggers a quick jump in heart rate and drop in blood pressure
and relaxes smooth muscle tissue. At the same time, it shuts
off oxygen to the inner brain, producing a sudden, intense weakness
and dizziness lasting 2-3 minutes. Sweating and flushing may
also occur.

Still, if you
need it, amyl nitrite is good medicine — or was, before it was
replaced by newer drugs. In fact, the drug was so effective —
and so relatively safe — that it was sold over the counter for
years, packaged in small mesh-covered vials.

As time passed,
though, amyl eventually found a larger market, one with healthy
hearts — particularly once word spread that the drug seemed
to intensify sexual orgasm. Users dubbed the vials “poppers”
and “snappers,” due to the sound they made when crushed,
and snapped up what they could from pharmacies.

And even though
amyl nitrite isn’t an aphrodisiac and doesn’t help in treating
sexual problems, it quickly gained a reputation as a “love
drug,” especially among gay men.

To counter
exploding recreational use, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration
reclassified amyl nitrite as a prescription-only drug in 1968.

..Butyl & Beyond: Pursuing Hex-Tasy

When amyl passed
into prescription-only status, a small swarm of little-known
chemical cousins crept out of the closet and into the noses and
lungs of a new generation of users.

The most popular
early stand-in was butyl nitrite, a chemical that differs only
slightly from amyl, but packs plenty of the same punch.

Sold as a “room
odorizer” or “liquid incense,” to sidestep the
U.S. Food & Drug Administration’s regulatory authority, butyl
was hawked under such trade names as “Locker Room”
and “Jac-Aroma” — which successfully conveyed the
awful smell of the chemical: a scent hovering somewhere between
month-old mildew and sweaty workout gear.

That didn’t
stop the curious, though, from trying them and may even have
added to butyl’s cachet in the ’80s, as use quickly spread from
gay bars to dance clubs to the general public.

Still, what
happened to amyl eventually happened to butyl, too, as the U.S.
Consumer Products Safety Commission stepped in where the FDA
couldn’t to ban the chemical in 1988.

That only made
the problem morph into something else. New act-alike chemicals
appeared in almost-Biblical fashion (Amyl begat Butyl which begat
Isobutyl which begat Isoamyl which begat Isopropyl) as each in
turn was removed from the market by federal agencies.

Today, the newest
nitrite is cyclohexyl nitrite, commonly sold as a “head
cleaner” for VCR’s, in a new effort to bypass controls.
(For details, see the box below.)

The chemicals
remain popular due to their reputation as romance-enhancers and
because they’re a cheap, readily-available alternative to other

Although butyl
and the newer nitrites differ from amyl chemically, effects are
roughly the same: a brief surge of dizziness and fluttering heart
rate followed by sweating and flushing.

Nitrites are
known for the speed and intensity of their effects: A nitrite
rush is near-instantaneous, but fades almost as quickly, leading
most users to inhale more — and often, more and more.

And that’s
where the thrills can turn to chills, spills, and physical ills.

..Pressure Problems

problems linked to use of nitrites are relatively minor, but
can be painful nonetheless.

Probably the
best-known adverse effect is a feeling of pressure behind the
eyes and a multi-megawatt headache.

Other side
effects include nausea, vomiting, faintness, and even blackout,
particularly if the user is drinking or taking other drugs.

And given that
many users sniff at crowded parties or in noisy bars or the middle
of throbbing dance floors, nitrite blackouts carry special problems
of their own.

But those are
just short-term effects. Frequent or long-term use of nitrites
can pose additional risks, including:

  • Glaucoma.
    Nitrites increase pressure
    in the nerves and blood vessels in the eyes, which may contribute
    to this blinding eye disorder.
  • Blood Cell
    Nitrites damage
    red blood cells and may cause an often-fatal anemia in which
    blood can no longer transport oxygen. This type of poisoning
    happens most often to users who swallow (rather than sniff) the
    chemical and requires immediate medical treatment.
  • HIV/AIDS. Researchers believe that nitrites may
    impair immune response and contribute to the onset of secondary
    infections often seen in people with AIDS.

While excessive
use of nitrites can be dangerous for anyone, some individuals
are particularly sensitive to the chemicals’ stimulant action.

People suffering
from anemia or high blood pressure or those who’ve experienced
a recent head injury are particularly at risk. And pregnant women,
of course, should avoid use of all inhalants (and all other unnecessary
chemicals) to protect their unborn children.

..N20: ‘Giggle Gas’

Like amyl nitrite,
nitrous oxide (N2O) is a medical drug with tons of history
— this time dating back to the 18th Century.

Commonly known
as “laughing gas,” nitrous is colorless and sweet-smelling,
and produces giddiness, relaxation, floating sensations, and
a mild anesthesia. Medically, it’s used for minor oral surgery
and dental work. But that’s only its day job.

After hours,
laughing gas moonlights as a recreational drug, particularly
at concerts and clubs and alternative dance-culture events, or

One source
of N2O is whipped-cream containers, where it’s used as a propellant.

More commonly,
though, the chemical is available in small canisters (known as
“whip-its”), which are sold in head shops and through
mail-order ads.

Bigger industrial-strength
cannisters find their way out of supply houses and dentists’
offices and into the hands and heads of users via burglaries
and diversion onto the black market.

And despite
its long history of use and its wide margin of safety in medical
practice, dangers linked to nitrous have increased in recent
years as unsupervised use has mounted.

..Last Laughs

Ready for another
funny fact about N2O and the nitrites? Try this one:

sales total in the tens of millions of dollars each year — and
that doesn’t include the uncounted underground trade in nitrous
oxide at concerts and raves.

That’s a lot
of gas — and a lot of dizziness, headaches, and other side effects.

And that’s
not even the least funny/incongruous/weird part of the whole
nitrite/nitrous oxide sniffing scene.

Because some
experts believe that nitrites produce only a physical reaction
and that any psychoactive effect is, quite literally, all in
the user’s head — it’s just the brain trying to bounce back
to normal and get a figurative grip on things.

Then, if you
add in the risks we’ve already discussed, you may just come to
the same conclusion that millions of other people have — that
nitrites and nitrous oxide don’t exactly add up to tons of fun
after all.

As conclusions
go, you could do a lot worse.

..Sidebar 2 | Cyclohexyl: Nitrites 2000

The nitrites’
most recent incarnation is cyclohexyl nitrate, commonly sold
in head shops and adult book stores as a “head cleaner”
for VCR’s.

cyclohexyl is similar to its predecessors, amyl and butyl nitrite,
with an industrial-strength odor that probably helps keep overuse
down. Packaging is similar, too, right down to the warning label
on the bottle:

Caution: Flammable,
harmful if swallowed, skin and eye irritant. If swallowed, drink
two glasses milk or water, induce vomiting, call physician. For
eye contact, flush with water. Avoid prolonged inhalation in
confined areas. Keep out of reach of children.

the warning is printed on a plastic sleeve that peels away when
the bottle is opened.

And even though
experts warn that such “cleaners” do more harm than
good — both to VCR heads and to users — as long as there’s
a market for cheap thrills, there’ll be cheap people thrilled
to bring them to the market.

..Sidebar 2 | Nitrous Oxide: Clearing the Air

One of the
biggest casualties in the recent upsurge in use of nitrous oxide
has been its long-held reputation for safety. Because as use
has ballooned throughout the United States, so have reports of
serious, even life-threatening risks linked to misuse.

  • A main danger
    is the risk of suffocation. Users who sniff nitrous directly
    from a tank or a big enough balloon in a small enough space can
    pass out — permanently, if nobody intervenes.
  • Using nitrous
    in a car can be particularly risky. A lot of users do nitrous
    there, often with the windows rolled tight, to keep the gas from
    escaping. It works — too well. The result is even more
    suffocation deaths — along with a growing number of fatal car
    wrecks linked to the “toxic behavior” of nitrous users.
  • There are
    other, less-lethal risks, too. Excessive use can cause nausea,
    vomiting, and disorientation, and since N2O impairs both motor
    control and coordination, it’s a good idea to avoid inhaling
    it while standing.

Want to avoid
problems altogether? Then avoid nitrous oxide — in fact, stay
away from inhalants altogether.

They might look like a gas (even
if they’re a liquid or a goo), but they can turn life into a
serious pain.

This is one in a series of publications
on drugs, behavior, and health by Do It Now Foundation.
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