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Non-medical use of laughing gas no laughing matter

20/12/2019

Vancouver, BC – An emergency physician at Richmond Hospital is issuing a warning about the dangers associated with inhaling nitrous oxide. The drug is used in medical and dental settings for sedation and pain. But some teens and young adults inhale it from small canisters known as "whippits" to get high.    

"We're seeing patients in the emergency department with drug-induced psychosis and neurological effects who've inhaled nitrous oxide," says Dr. Matthew Kwok. "People become addicted to this drug, and its non-medical use can be extremely dangerous."

In the December 2019 issue of the BC Medical Journal, Dr. Kwok outlines the case of a 20-year old woman with no history of psychiatric or medical illness before experiencing visual and auditory hallucinations. She admitted using nitrous oxide daily, and had recently increased her dosage. When Dr .Kwok and his team attempted to report the case, they found no one agency is tracking nitrous oxide overdoses in Canada.

"This is a commercially available product that can cause serious adverse health effects, yet there isn't a proper reporting mechanism that adequately reflects the magnitude of the potential toxicity,' says Dr. Kwok. "Our research shows very few reported cases, in part because the nitrous oxide comes from a product marketed for whipping cream and an adverse report would only be accepted if the canister itself was faulty."

Dr. Kwok suggests access should be restricted and safeguards added to minimize harm.

He also says medical staff and the public need to be more aware of the possible outcomes of inhaling non-medical nitrous oxide. "When people present at the emergency department with unexplained neurological symptoms it's important for clinicians to consider nitrous oxide as a possible cause," says Dr. Kwok. "It's also important for users to know that using this product outside a supervised medical setting can cause serious health effects."

Vancouver Coastal Health is responsible for the delivery of $3.6 billion in community, hospital and long-term care to more than one million people in communities including Richmond, Vancouver, the North Shore, Sunshine Coast, Sea to Sky corridor, Powell River, Bella Bella and Bella Coola. VCH also provides specialized care and services for people throughout BC, and is the province's hub of health care education and research.

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CONTACT:

Carrie Stefanson
Public Affairs Leader
Vancouver Coastal Health
Office: 604.708.5340
Cell:  604.312.1148
E:  carrie.stefanson@vch.ca

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