If you’ve seen Night at the Roxbury, you might remember the scene when the fellas stock up on whipped cream cans for a night of partying. Whippits. Hippie Crack. Laughing gas. To most people, nitrous oxide is seemingly harmless. I mean, it’s called laughing gas, my dentist uses it. It’s just air, isn’t it?
Whippits are classified as an inhalant, along with several other types of substances. Inhalants come in many forms:
- Liquids—gasoline, glue, felt-tip marker fluids, paint thinners
- Aerosols—spray paints, computer cleaning dusters, hair sprays
- Nitrites—found in leather cleaner, room deodorizers, sexual enhancers called “poppers” or “snappers”
- Gases—chloroform, butane lighters, propane tanks, nitrous oxide
These substances are generally not considered drugs because they are household products not intended to get people high, but they are often abused in that way. Inhalants are the only class of substance that is abused more by younger teens than older teens.
Products like this are typically breathed in through the nose or mouth, which is known as “huffing.” Fumes are also inhaled from a balloon or plastic bag. The high can only last up to a few minutes, but most abusers of the drug continue to inhale repeatedly for hours to prolong the high.
Inhalants affect the central nervous system much like alcohol, causing slurred speech, lack of coordination, euphoria, and dizziness. A user can also experience light-headedness, hallucinations, and delusions. Like most drugs, users can lose control with repeated inhalations and, although rare, addiction can occur.
There are many dangers that come along with using inhalants. Most of these products have chemicals that can be toxic to the body, causing nausea, vomiting, liver and kidney damage, hearing loss, or bone marrow damage. In some cases, users die of heart failure within minutes. High concentrations of an inhalant can cause a user to to suffocate.
What is Nitrous Oxide?
Nitrous oxide was the first agent proposed for use as an anesthetic during surgery in 1800 by British chemist Humphry Davy. It wasn’t used medically for another 40 years, and it was even longer before we started using it in dental operations. But, the history of the gas being used as a drug traces back to the British aristocracy in the 1800s, when they had raging laughing-gas parties.
Nowadays, nitrous oxide is used as an anesthetic to ease anxiety at the dentist’s office. There, the nitrous oxide is mixed with oxygen and delivered through a mask. Outside of this medical setting, it’s very dangerous.
Non-medical nitrous oxide is sold in small cartridges, which are meant to be used in industrial whipped cream dispensers (you may have seen one of these dispensers at Starbucks). Some users manage to access large tanks of nitrous oxide and have all-night parties huffing from the tank, or filling up balloons and selling them.
How Can Air Be Dangerous?
When nitrous oxide is inhaled from a Reddi-Wip can, a balloon, or especially straight from a whipped-cream dispenser, the gas is compressed and not enough oxygen gets to the brain. This lack of oxygen can put you in a hypoxic state and, if it lasts more than a few minutes, it can lead to brain damage or even death.
The drug impairs motor control, making falls common for users who inhale while standing. It can also cause nausea, running the risk for the user to aspirate on their own vomit as they lose motor control.
Addiction to nitrous is uncommon—less that 1% of teens suffer from abuse or addiction to inhalants—but abuse of the drug can cause serious health problems. With frequent use, the user can begin to have severe muscle contractions which look like a seizure.
Chronic nitrous abuse can also damage myelin, a protective sheathing around nerve fibers that helps nerves transmit messages in the brain and nervous system. This nerve damage leads to peripheral neurophathy—tingling in the limbs, loss of sensation, and difficulty with movement and coordination. Scientists believe this condition is a result of nitrous oxide depleting vitamin B12 levels. High doses of the vitamin are used in treatment of a user’s numbness and immobility.
For most people, these consequences can be reversed with abstinence. However, some users end up in wheelchairs because they continue with the habit despite their body’s warning signs.
Are You Joking?
No, I’m not joking. Whether you’ve tried whippits or not, it can seem silly that they would become a significant problem for anyone. Speaking from my own personal experience, it’s very possible and it does happen.
Addiction is a condition that goes beyond our substance of choice. In the thick of my addiction, I would have taken anything that would have removed me from reality. I started out doing whippits occasionally at music festivals, then I later bought my own industrial whipped cream dispenser online, and eventually I became a well-known face at my local head shop, where they sold cases of whippits at a discount—700 cartridges to a case.
I always mixed whippits with other drugs, especially stimulants. At one point I even tried to limit my drug use to whippits alone, in an attempt to get off of the other drugs. Didn’t work. Whippits may not be physically addictive, but the feeling of escape is addictive. The high is so short-lived—typically 30 to 60 seconds—that it becomes very easy to keep going back for more. Once that compulsive habit begins, it can be as tough to kick as any other addiction, with just as many consequences.
I plundered all of my money into drugs, and at the end whippits were a big chunk of it—thousands of dollars. They may seem cheap, but not when you’re buying cases full of them. I experienced severe peripheral neuropathy. My body would tingle constantly, I wobbled with every step I took, I couldn’t hold a pen or cut with a knife. Eventually, I woke up one day, dialed my phone with my knuckles to call and say, “Dad, I can’t move.”
With abstinence, a vitamin regimen, and physical therapy, I was lucky enough to learn how to walk again. Today, I can even run for miles. But my whippit addiction still haunts me. When I get extremely anxious or run too far, my feet can start to tingle again.
When I was so sick, I had an MRI scan and the doctor found 3 unidentified bright objects on my brain. These are thought to be benign, typically seen in elderly patients after a stroke or some deprivation of oxygen to the brain. But, growing evidence may suggest they are linked to an alteration in brain function.
I can’t know how my whippit addiction will affect my future health, but I am grateful today to have them completely out of my life. There are whippit users some who aren’t as lucky as me. After opening up about my whippit problem in sobriety, I’ve heard some scary stories. One woman went into a coma for several months because of her chronic whippit use. Another woman spoke to me about her friend who died the first time he inhaled a whippit.
In recovery, we rarely hear of people identifying as whippit addicts, or even having a problem with whippits. They aren’t seen as a threat or considered dangerous. But, just like any other drug, whippits can be extremely dangerous. Even a first-time user can die because of heart failure or a severe lack of oxygen to the brain.
Don’t be deceived by how readily available this drug is, or its growing social acceptability. They’re sold locally at smoke shops and sex shops under the guise that they’re being used for whipped cream production (How many people going to these stores are baking tons of pies?). You can purchase whipped cream cans at your local grocery store or gas station. The drug is so easily accessible, yet we aren’t discussing how dangerous they are, even with just one use.