Nitrous oxide addiction
The drug is used legally as an anesthetic and to reduce patients’ anxiety at the dentist’s office, but it is also sold in small cartridges that are intended for use in making whipped cream. These containers can easily be misused by people seeking a high. Although addiction to nitrous is uncommon, its abuse can have serious consequences.
“People who use a lot can [appear to have] something like a seizure, ” says Dr. Dennis Bohlin, a Manhattan dentist and expert on addiction in medical professionals, who is himself a former nitrous-oxide addict.
“That happened to me, ” he says. “Your face and teeth clench, and you have muscle contractions that can appear like a seizure.”
Bohlin, who has been in recovery for 29 years, says that while nitrous addiction is rare overall, it can be an occupational hazard for dentists and anesthesiologists who have access to it. Among teens, less than half of 1% suffer from abuse or addiction to the entire class of inhalable drugs, which includes household products and gasoline, as well as whippits.
“I just saw it like ‘Miller Time’ at the end of the day, ” Bohlin says, referring to a tagline of Miller beer commercials. “It was there and available. I was stressed, and it seemed safer than alcohol. You’re not going to get a DWI while flying in the dental chair, so it was a drug of opportunity.”
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The drug was the first agent ever proposed for use as an anesthetic during surgery. The idea was put forth by British chemist Humphry Davy in a book published back in 1800, but it would be another four decades before nitrous oxide was used medically and years more before anesthesia for painful dental extractions and operations became routine. In the meantime, laughing-gas parties had become all the rage in the British aristocracy.