Nitrous Oxide (N₂O), also known as laughing gas, is composed of two molecules of nitrogen and one molecule of oxygen. It’s odorless and colorless with a slight metallic or sometimes, sweet taste. It has significant use in the medical and dental industries due to its analgesic and anesthetic properties. Uses include general anesthesia, procedural sedation, dental anesthesia, and treatment of severe pain. Nitrous Oxide was first discovered in 1772 by the English scientist, Joseph Priestly, and has been used for more than 150 years. The gas is administered via inhalation by utilizing a face mask, laryngeal mask airway, or an endotracheal tube.
Nitrous oxide affects the body in three ways. First, the anti-anxiety effect, which is caused by GABAA receptors that block neurotransmitters. Second, it has an analgesic (pain-reducing) effect when the brain releases norepinephrine that inhibits pain signaling throughout the body. Lastly, nitrous oxide has a euphoric effect due to increased stimulation of the reward pathway in the brain that releases dopamine. After a procedure, the patient is given pure oxygen to completely flush out any remaining nitrous oxide from their system. Patients should soon return to their normal state.
Since nitrous oxide is approved as a food additive, it’s used for whipped cream and cooking spray cans and as a food or beverage ingredient. Nitrous oxide is also used as a propellant. In vehicle racing, nitrous oxide (often called nitrous) allows the engine to burn more fuel by providing more oxygen during combustion, producing greater power. Nitrous is also used in rocket propulsion due to its oxidizing effect at high temperatures. It has advantages over other oxidizers because it is less toxic, stable at room temperatures, and is easy to store on a flight.