A 22 year-old man woke up one day with numbness below his knees. He had no previous illness or injury to cause this new symptom which soon grew to include a tingling in his fingers. He found himself struggling to walk, especially after any fine motor skill work with his hands.
Doctors examined the patient and struggled to find a cause for his symptoms, which were similar to Guillain–Barré syndrome. This rare autoimmune syndrome is characterized by muscle weakness and respiratory issues and can cause paralysis.
After careful questioning of the man, doctors were able to pinpoint the cause of his physical distress-he was inhaling whippets. Despite medical intervention the abuse of nitrogen oxide had permanently affected his body. The man now needed a cane in order to walk.
What is a whippet?
Whippets are also known as whippits or whip-its. Whippets is a term for inhaling nitrous oxide. While this seemingly harmless substance, also known as “laughing gas” is used on children and adults at the dentist, it’s now a popular substance to abuse as well.
Onemay argue that the real danger in this substance is its easy accessibility. Nitrous oxide is used to preserve and to pressurize canned whip cream. The name “whippet” is a nod to the way users suck the chemical out of the can of whipped cream in order to get high.
Why are Whippets Dangerous?
Whippets belong to a category of drugs known as inhalants. These substances seem to be popular with young teens with about 10 percent admitting to trying an inhalant.
These are usually common household substances that can be purchased by anyone regardless of age. While these common cleaners and aerosols aren’t largely thought of when it comes to illicit drugs, they can be extremely harmful to the body. These types of substances include:
- Felt-tip marker fluid
- Lighter fluid
- Dry-cleaning fluids
- Paint thinners or removers
- Correction fluids
Nitrites are often sold in small brown bottles labeled as:
- Room odorizer
- Leather cleaner
- Video head cleaner
- Liquid aroma
- Aerosol computer cleaning products
- Spray paints
- Vegetable oil sprays
- Hair or deodorant sprays
- Propane tanks
- Whipped cream aerosols or dispensers (whippets)
- Butane lighters
- Nitrous oxide
While whippets may seem fairly tame in comparison to huffing ether, nitrous oxide can have a lasting effect on the body. Whippets are done by inhaling nitrous oxide either directly into the mouth or into another object and then into the mouth. As nitrous oxide is extremely cold (-40 degrees Celsius), inhaling this gas directly into the mouth can cause frostbite to the nose, lips and throat, including the vocal cords. It can also cause ruptures to the lung tissue.
The effect of a whippet can vary from person to person depending on their:
- Whether they take the drug regularly
- Whether they have drank alcohol or taken other drugs
The effects of the drug can vary and include the following:
- Uncontrolled laughter
- Uncoordinated movements
- Numbness of the body
- Dizziness and/or light-headedness
- Feeling unusually tired or weak
- Blurred vision
- Sudden death
Can Using Whippets be Fatal?
According to the Alcohol and Drug Foundation of Australia, this easy accessible substance can have some serious complications if taken in excess. When too large an amount of this gas is inhaled it can cause a serious drop in blood pressure, fainting and even a heart attack. If the user fails to get enough oxygen, nitrous oxide abuse can be fatal.
While the high produced by doing a whippet only lasts a few seconds, many users report doing whippets over and over in order to extend the “high”. The effects of the drug include a feeling of floating, distorted perceptions and in some cases visual hallucinations.
Long-term Effects of Whippets
One of the most concerning effects of nitrous oxide abuse is its ability to deplete vitamin B12 from the body. Long-term depletion can cause brain and nerve damage. Users may also experience the following long-term effects:
- Ringing or buzzing in the ears
- Limb spasms
- Weakened immune system
- Potential birth defects (if consumed during pregnancy)
- Numbness in the hands or feet
- Memory loss
- Disruption to reproductive systems
Are Whippets Addictive?
Many illegal drugs react with the brain’s pleasure center and can be extremely addictive. According to the UCLA Brain Research Institute, whippets block the brain’s transmitters to slow the brain from firing. It also eases pain and anxiety. So, if the effects of whippets only last minutes, are whippets addictive?
According to the UCLA Brain Research Institute, use of whippets can be addictive and produce withdrawal symptoms which can last for weeks.
Whippets cause a short high, usually about two minutes. Drug Science, an independent scientific community on drugs based in the UK, believe that this can cause the user to want to repeat the behavior again and again. They state that people only become addictive psychologically occasionally and individuals with mental conditions may be more susceptible to addiction to this gas.
While no amount of drug use is safe, there are ways to minimize risk while doing whippets. These include:
- Inhaling the nitrous oxide out of a balloon (the balloon allows the gas to warm up and minimizes risk of frostbite).
- Never do whippets alone.
- Don’t do whippets standing up or dancing (users may fall or faint).
- Do not do whippets while drinking or doing other drugs.
When it comes to drug abuse, behavior that may seem harmless to a child or young adult can have lasting and long term effects. If you’re struggling with drug addiction or are concerned for a loved one, you can contact the National Drug Addiction Helpline to be put in touch with services in your area.