Recently, an article about a Chinese student found herself addicted to laughing gas has gone viral. The student, Lin Na, who studied abroad in the United States, returned to China in a crippling health condition. Escorted by Beijing International Airport staff in a wheelchair, she said, “My parents’ grief and agony in their heart is the last thing I would recall throughout my life.”

During the time Lin Na was studying in the United States, she had taken a recreational substance—laughing gas—out of curiosity. Experiencing irregular bodily function and incontinence, as a result, she needed to give up her study, which she had spent nearly ten years to pursue.

Another similar case happened in Shanghai, in which a 19-year-old patient was admitted to the Shanghai Mental Health Centre due to hands curling, fatigue and immobility—caused by laughing gas intake.

Despite the potential danger in taking laughing gas and its negative impacts on most of the addicted youngsters, the substance is gaining popularity around the globe—being used as a recreational substance among partygoers.

About Laughing Gas

Laughing gas is also known as nitrous oxide. It is a non-toxic chemical compound exists in gaseous state with non-flammable, colourless and odourless properties at room temperature.

Since the 20th century, nitrous oxide has been used in the medical industry for anaesthetic and analgesic purposes during surgical and dental treatments. Its euphoric and dissociative effects of inhaling have led to its recreational use since the 18th century in the United Kingdom—hence, the name “Laughing Gas”. Nowadays, it is commonly used as a recreational substance at night clubs, bars and parties.

People usually inhale laughing gas using balloons
People usually inhale laughing gas using balloons

Apart from its medical use, nitrous oxide is also used for production of whipped cream in the F&B industry. Therefore, it is common to see merchants selling nitrous oxide in silver canisters for food making. The substance is safe when use for food production, but it may endanger health if people inhale it under certain circumstances.

How does laughing gas affect users?

According to UK’s Home Office, there have been 17 fatalities due to nitrous oxide inhaling between 2006 and 2012 in the country.

In 2013 – 2014, nitrous oxide users were approximately 470,000 in which 7.6% among them were teenagers aged 16 to 24 years old—having greater proportion than cocaine users (4.2%) and ecstasy users (3.9%).

Users may encounter side effects when they inhale nitrous oxide. The side effects might occur at the first time of inhaling and some experience the side effects after constant use for a period of time. Listed below are the possible side effects of nitrous oxide intake:

• Hallucination
• Limb numbness
• Paralysis
• Incontinence
• Vitamin B12 deficiency and anaemia due to long-term use
• Tingling in fingers, toes and extremities due to vitamin deficiency
• Asphyxiation
• Pass out
• Sound distortions
• Depress formation of white blood cells
• Demyelinating disease
• Nerve endings lesion

Compared with the other drugs, medical practitioners in general opined that laughing gas tend to have low toxicity if the users do not excess certain intake amount.

"There's been something like 40-odd deaths in the last 40 years. They're really rare," said Dr Adam Winstock, consultant psychiatrist and founder of the Global Drug Survey.

However, critics also warned that laughing gas could kill due to a sudden drop of blood's level of oxygen when users inhale high concentrations of laughing gas using plastic bags. "The risk of brain damage just isn't worth it as far as I can tell," warned Dr Anna-Maria Rollin from the Royal College of Anaesthetists.

Laughing gas is gaining popularity in Mainland China

The application of nitrous oxide as a recreational substance has started to become prevalent in the West many years ago and has gained its popularity among youngsters in China recently.

In China, nitrous oxide can be purchased through e-commerce platforms by entering keywords such as “Cream” (奶油), “Whipping Agent”(發泡), “Cream Bomb” (奶油氣彈), “Cream Whipping” (奶油發泡)for bakery purposes.

Wrong way of application with the intention of entertaining users themselves is the main reason that causes severe health problems, particularly among youngsters. They inhale nitrous oxide under the influence of friends at parties and night clubs, as they were told the laughing gas brings relaxation. Young people, who find their study life challenging and pressured, are the common group who becomes addicted to this recreational substance.

“In fact, many teenagers and young adult users of laughing gas are afraid to let the school and parents know that they are taking laughing gas. They don’t seek medication immediately even they feel numbness and in-rage emotionally,” said Dr Wang Li , Principal Physician from Department of Neurology, China-Japan Friendship Hospital.

In January 2017, Nanjing Police posted an official memo “Public Safety Concerns on Prevalence of Cream Bomb” online, informing the society that laughing gas is gaining popularity among youngsters as a replacement for drugs. The incidents of fighting and quarrel happened in recreation centres, due to laughing gas intake are on the rise.

According to a veteran drug enforcement police officer in Northeast China, laughing gas is in trend in some of the major cities in the Northeast provinces these few years. However, the government has yet to formulate framework to neither regulate its recreational use nor stop it from becoming more popular. The legitimacy of laughing gas intake in China is vague – in grey area – at the time being. MIMS

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