You may not have heard of them but whippits are the most misused inhalant drugs in the United States. When you think of inhalants you may think of gasoline, lighter fluid, or spray paint and you may even be asking “what’s a whippit or whippet?”.
Whippits is a slang term for steel cartridges filled with nitrous oxide (N₂O) – a colorless, odorless gas that reduces anxiety and produces a short-lived high. Other common terms are “hippie crack” and laughing gas.
There’s a legitimate dental use of nitrous oxide since it relieves pain. When administered by a professional, nitrous oxide is safe since the patient gets a very controlled dose and the effects are closely monitored.
The gas is also used in other ways. For example, it acts as a propellant and preservative in whipped cream dispensers and some people use N₂O for automotive performance. Therefore, nitrous oxide canisters can be bought online or in stores legally and easily.
Though safe when used as intended, nitrous oxide can be harmful to health when abused and whippits can be addictive when used in excess. Unlike other drugs, inhalants don’t flood the brain’s pleasure system to create a high. Instead, they deprive the brain of oxygen, resulting in lightheadedness or a floating sensation.
Even though you may never have heard about whippits, they are increasingly being used across the country including among children and adolescents. According to the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 3.3% of individuals between the ages of 18 and 25 and 5.2% of people 26 and older reported that they misused nitrous oxide.
Whippits are dangerous so if you or someone you know is using them, you may need to seek professional help. Let’s take a closer look at why nitrous oxide is one of the most dangerous substances for adolescents and even adults.
Laughing Gas: History of Nitrous Oxide
Nitrous oxide was first synthesized in 1772 by an English chemist. Decades later, Cornish chemist Humphry Davy discovered that it had psychoactive properties. People have been abusing nitrous oxide for years and it was even used as a party drug for a short period in the 1800s.
In 1844, a dentist by the name of Horace Wells realized that the gas could be used as anesthesia. Today, dentists combine nitrous oxide with at least 30 percent oxygen to limit the dangerous side effects.
Recreational Misuse of Whippits
People can abuse nitrous oxide in several ways. Most use a food-grade version which can be easily obtained from a can of whipped cream or a whipped cream charger. Therefore, sucking the gas propellant out of whipped cream cans became known as “doing a whip it”.
Cartridges or whippets of nitrous oxide can also be used. Some individuals punch the top of the cartridge to let the gas escape and then put a balloon on the end of the charger. They then suck the gas out of the balloon. Other people suck the nitrous oxide directly from the whippet or use a device called a cracker to break open the canisters and inhale the gas.
In addition, individuals use N₂O for automotive performance but this should never be used recreationally. Automotive-grade nitrous oxide contains sulfur dioxide which makes it unpleasant to inhale. This type of nitrous oxide can also harm the lungs. Whiteout and some solvents or glues also contain N₂O. Some people sniff these to get the same high.
When a person inhales nitrous oxide, they go without oxygen for a few brief moments. They don’t get a strong euphoric rush. Instead, they get a heady feeling along with a reduction in anxiety that many find enjoyable. The effects vary depending on how much the individual inhaled, how often they inhale it, and if they use other drugs as well. Health and body weight also play a role.
The high caused by whippits typically lasts a mere 15 seconds and half of the gas leaves the body in five minutes. You may think this makes whippets safer than other drugs but that’s not the case.
People who want to experience a longer high will binge on whippets so they can feel the effects again. Therefore, people can use too much nitrous oxide without realizing it and this can lead to serious problems. When abused, nitrous oxide poses both short-term and long-term health risks.
Short-Term Dangers of Whippit Misuse
Short-term effects of whippit misuse include:
- Blurred vision
- Poor coordination
- Difficulty breathing
- Changes in heart rate
- Numbness in the body
- Losing consciousness
- Injuries from losing consciousness
If a person uses nitrous oxide directly from a canister or tank, they may get cold burns on the skin, lips, and throat because of the temperature of the gas. When consumed from a tank, the pressure can also damage the lungs.
When nitrous oxide is taken in large quantities, the effects may be more severe. One possible issue is a drop in blood pressure. A user may also faint with just one dose, suffer a heart attack or die from asphyxiation.
Associated with Whippit Abuse
With continued use, users may experience:
- Liver damage
- Kidney damage
- Low blood pressure
- Heart problems
- Compromised immune system
- Nerve damage
B12 Deficiency and Other Health Effects
The human body needs vitamin B12 for the normal functioning of the brain and nervous system. This vitamin also plays an important role in the formation of DNA and red blood cells. Individuals who misuse nitrous oxide regularly have lower B12 availability and this affects the nerves in the upper and lower extremities. They may experience temporary or permanent numbness as well as limb spasms and other signs of nerve damage.
It is important to note that people who have a vitamin B12 deficiency have a heightened risk of experiencing negative side effects when they use whippets. One study found that five people who had low levels of vitamin B12 suffered a neurologic deficit after they went under nitrous oxide anesthesia. This means parts of the brain and spinal cord lost functionality.
These individuals didn’t know they had a B12 deficiency until they developed complications. According to the researchers, receiving nitrous oxide while deficient in vitamin B12 could lead to death if the effects remained unknown.
Mixing nitrous oxide with other drugs can cause the effects to vary. People who combine whippits and alcohol may be more confused and disoriented. Some individuals use nitrous oxide along with prescription medications or illegal drugs to intensify the high or change the effects in some way.
Combining N₂O with other stimulant drugs may change the user’s blood pressure and heart rate. When mixed with LSD, cannabis, ketamine, or mushrooms, nitrous oxide can intensify dissociation.
Also, those who inhale with plastic bags over their heads, dance while using whippits, or combine whippits with other inhalants or drugs could be at risk for more negative outcomes.
Abusing nitrous oxide in any form has the potential to cause long-term effects on a person’s health. Oxygen deprivation causes brain cells to die. This condition is known as hypoxia and the brain damage can be permanent.
It’s rare but possible for whippet abuse to cause psychological issues such as depression and psychosis. Some people also experience memory loss, a ringing sound in the ears, reproductive issues, birth defects, and incontinence.
Can A Person Develop A Nitrous Oxide Addiction?
Compared to other inhalants, whippets can take a long time to become addictive and nitrous oxide use disorders aren’t as common as other substance use orders. This may have led to the belief that a person can’t become addicted to it. However, people can become psychologically dependent on whippits. A person who is addicted to nitrous oxide will not be able to stop using it even if they experience negative side effects.
Because whippets cause a short, intense high, addiction is a real possibility. Individuals who have mental health disorders may be more likely to become addicted to nitrous oxide. That’s because inhaling substances can provide short-term relief from difficult thoughts and emotions.
Nitrous oxide is especially likely to cause dissociative effects which make individuals lose touch with reality for a brief period.
Famous People Who Have Been Addiction Nitrous Oxide
There are some well-known people who have struggled with nitrous oxide addiction even though it isn’t that common. A quick Google search will return stories about Demi Moore, Steve-O, and celebrity use of whippits. You’ll also read about the experience of Tony Hsieh and the whippit risks he faced.
Entertainer Steve-O revealed publicly that he was addicted to laughing gas and had to spend time on a psych ward in 2008 partially because of this. Meanwhile, actress and singer Demi Moore experienced a seizure after inhaling nitrous oxide. She was rushed to hospital and subsequently went to rehab to be treated for a substance use disorder.
Meanwhile, details of Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s battle with drug use emerged following his death in 2020. His friends claimed that he used up to 50 cartridges of nitrous oxide per day and his home was littered with empty cartridges along with rotten food, dog feces, and broken glass. It was speculated that his nitrous oxide misuse contributed to the fire that claimed his life.
How Do You Know If Someone Is Using Whippits?
After reading the above, you may be concerned that someone you know is abusing nitrous oxide. Signs of laughing gas misuse include:
- Red eyes
- Runny nose
- Sores around the mouth
- Loss of appetite
- Behavioral changes
- An appearance of intoxication
- Mood swings
You may also notice empty canisters, steel cartridges, crackers, and other products around. A person who is abusing nitrous oxide and finding it hard to quit needs professional treatment.
Treatment Methods for Nitrous Oxide Misuse
Treatment of whippet misuse is similar to treatment for other substances that cause psychological dependence. That is, it centers on identifying the reasons behind the addiction. Individuals attend therapy sessions in which they talk about when they started using nitrous oxide and what contributed to their use.
Using treatment modalities like cognitive-behavioral therapy, the therapist helps the patient to change their thoughts and behaviors surrounding drug use and assists them in developing new coping mechanisms. This helps to set the stage for long-term recovery.
Programs vary from one facility to another but they can include complementary therapies and treatments such as music therapy, art therapy, meditation, and yoga. Group therapy, family therapy, and 12-Step programs may also be offered.
Recovery from Whippit Misuse Is Possible
Abusing nitrous oxide can have serious consequences. As we noted earlier, addiction isn’t common but it can occur. If you can’t control your use of whippits or you feel moody when you’re not using them, you should seek professional help. When you work with experienced addiction treatment professionals, you’ll get care that’s tailored specifically to your needs. The experts at The Discovery House in Los Angeles can help you or your loved one who’s struggling with using nitrous oxide. We never take a one-size-fits-all approach to addiction treatment because we know each individual is different. Contact us today to ask questions and learn more about our customized, evidence-based treatment programs.