Let me take you back. It’s a humid evening in Hanoi, July 2019. My friend and I were on our final leg of an 8-week post-graduation stint across Asia—I’d just had just received an offer for a dream MA course and was eager to celebrate. We hit the bustling streets of the Old Quarter, a popular tourist and party area, to avoid the crowds before ducking into a dingy bar. It was there that I was offered a balloon of laughing gas—foolishly, I took it. But before I get into the details, let’s clarify what a whipit is.
A whipit is the street name for a nitrous oxide charger, the term relates to the charger’s intended purpose—to refill whipped cream dispensers. Yes, the same mechanism that is used by chefs in a restaurant to whip up that ice cream sundae is the same used by students in dingy halls at the tail-end of a weekend sesh. On the streets, the term whipit also relates to the actual nitrous oxide gas that the mechanism produces from steel pellets of compressed air. Nitrous oxide gas, or ‘nos’ for short, is sometimes called laughing gas due to the euphoric effects it produces. Aside from its recreational use, the gas is also used for medical purposes—but don’t let this fool you, taking a huff from a balloon can come with serious side effects.
There are several short-term, negative side effects of inhaling nitrous oxide. Although short-term adverse effects are uncommon, they can’t exactly be ruled out. The most prevalent cause of the adversity is breathing the gas too rapidly or too deeply. The effects which follow include: tiredness, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, headache, shivering, and profuse sweating.
While there are fewer long-term side effects, it’s conceivable that prolonged exposure to nitrous oxide, or purposeful abuse of the gas, can cause health problems. Anaemia or a vitamin B-12 deficiency might result from excessive exposure. The latter can induce nerve injury, resulting in numbness in a person’s limbs, fingers, or toes. It’s found that regular use can even stop you from forming white blood cells properly. According to TalktoFrank, It may be possible to become psychologically dependent on nitrous oxide, meaning users can develop an increased desire to keep using it despite the harm it may cause.
I’d tried it a few times before. When I was at my University you practically couldn’t avoid them—the annoying metal canisters would litter the streets outside nightclubs and carpet the floors of Hyde Park—a student hotspot known for its summer barbeques, house parties and afters. I have to admit, I was naive.
I took the balloon, started to inhale and suddenly everything went black. I woke up around 30 seconds later, in a daze, slumped back against the wall—it felt like the entire bar was looking at me. Apparently, I’d passed out, flopping like a fish and gasping for air, after taking one drag of the balloon, which was, admittedly, gargantuan in size compared to what I had previously in my dingy student home. I was shaken, but wouldn’t you be too?
As a bar worker shook me back into consciousness—and with it my recollection of the world around me—I remember him reassuring me that it wasn’t the ‘dodgy’ gas but instead I’d just taken a hit too hard. Whether I believe him or not is something I still question to this day.
Of course, I’ll be the first to admit that this was probably an isolated incident—but it’s a story worth telling nonetheless. While I’m sure nos balloons, on the whole, are mostly harmless when done few and far between, it’s worth bearing in mind that taking it comes with its own risks. Luckily, the situation caused me no permanent damage but others weren’t as lucky. In 2012 Demi Moore was hospitalised after inhaling nitrous oxide. Matthew Howard, social worker and editor of the Journal of Addictive Diseases at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill told VICE, “You can die using it in some circumstances,” but fortunately, “most people are engaged in intermittent episodic use. That’s not nearly as problematic.”
The end note: if you are going to indulge in a nos session, the least you can do is consider the risks involved. Personally, my experience has scarred me enough to never touch a nos-filled balloon again, but I respect the fact that for as long as it’s popular, people will still do it. So, if you are set on experiencing laughing gas, take precautions. Go at your own pace, don’t do it just because everyone else is and try to have someone with experience to guide you throughout the process.