Mental health experts are warning Nigerians about the dangers of inhaling nitrous oxide, commonly known as laughing gas, as it can cause brain and nerve damage. Inhaling nitrous oxide to achieve a state of euphoria may also lead to the development of mental disorders like schizophrenia or psychosis. While nitrous oxide can create a temporary feeling of relaxation and euphoria, psychiatrists emphasize that it is more hazardous than cocaine.
Nitrous oxide, a colorless gas commonly used for sedation and pain relief in medical settings, is now being misused by individuals to experience intoxication or a high. There is a concerning trend of young people inhaling gas from inflated balloons in videos shared on social media. Mental health experts interviewed by PUNCH Healthwise have expressed concerns that this practice could result in an increase in nerve damage and mental disorders nationwide.
Dr. Jaiyeola Kajero, a consultant psychiatrist at Federal Neuropsychiatric Hospital, Oshodi Annex, explained that nitrous oxide induces a state of euphoria, characterized by excessive heightened emotions and happiness. Prolonged use of the substance can slow down heartbeats and even lead to heart attacks. Abusing nitrous oxide can also cause vitamin B12 cobalamin deficiency, resulting in brain and nerve damage. Additional effects may include tingling sensations, numbness in the feet, confusion, disorientation, panic, and a choking sensation when inhaled improperly.
Dr. Sunday Amosu, Head of Drug Addiction Treatment Education Research at the Federal Neuropsychiatric Hospital, Aro, Abeokuta, emphasized that continuous exposure to nitrous oxide beyond medical use can have damaging effects on neurological symptoms related to brain communication. Symptoms of persistent use include fatigue, irregular breathing, difficulty breathing, loss of appetite, digestive problems, numbness in the fingers and toes, difficulty walking, and poor vision. The substance affects neurons and can cause irreversible brain damage.
Dr. Samuel Aladejare, a Senior Registrar in Psychiatry at the Federal Neuropsychiatric Hospital Yaba, Lagos, explained that nitrous oxide, although transient in its effects, can reduce the ability to perceive pain and affect the nervous system controlling muscles. In terms of mental health, users may experience dissociation, depression, memory problems, hallucinations, and unusual thoughts. These effects can result in falls, accidents, and physical injuries. Mixing nitrous oxide with other substances can lead to acute poisoning, loss of consciousness, seizures, and even death. Dr. Aladejare also highlighted the dangerous practice of placing a nylon bag around the head while inhaling nitrous oxide, which can be fatal.
To reduce the availability of nitrous oxide in the market, the psychiatrists urged the government to regulate its importation and sale. They emphasized the need for extensive education about the dangers of nitrous oxide and other drugs of abuse, as well as strengthening mental health service delivery and increasing the workforce to address this emerging issue in society.
A report titled “Recreational use of nitrous oxide: a growing concern for Europe” by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction sheds light on the risks and harms associated with nitrous oxide. The report highlights the widespread availability of small cartridges of nitrous oxide used for filling balloons, which can be easily obtained from convenience stores, supermarkets, and online suppliers. The report emphasizes the need for awareness as the number of people using nitrous oxide has increased, resulting in a rise in poisonings and damage to the nervous system. It also mentions concerns such as severe frostbite, lung injuries, and car accidents associated with the gas.
A study conducted in England on patients admitted to hospitals revealed that young males, particularly those of Asian ethnicity, are most likely to experience neurological harm from the use of nitrous oxide. The study showed a correlation between weekly consumption of nitrous oxide and elevated levels of methylmalonic acid, indicating impaired functioning of vitamin B12. Treatment typically involves intramuscular injections of vitamin B12, with the discontinuation of nitrous oxide use being essential for effectiveness. As prevention is crucial, researchers launched the “N2O: Know the Risks” campaign to raise awareness among young individuals in east London about the neurological risks associated with nitrous oxide, including conducting educational workshops.