A girl in her 20s is struggling to walk and may face life with irreversible nerve damage to her spinal cord due to inhaling 360 “nangs” a week. The use of nitrous oxide, otherwise known as laughing gas has been around for hundreds of years, with “laughing parties” in 18th century England. It is now being used widely again as a recreational drug.

In a medical setting, nitrous oxide is useful. Dentists use it as an anaesthetic and it is administered to women in labour. It is also used in small canisters designed to whip cream, which in recent years has become popular for recreational use. Nangs are available to purchase over the counter and are used to inhale the nitrous oxide inside, which results in a 20 second high.

Doctors warn that recreational use of nitrous oxide carries serious risks. It can cause brain damage, memory loss, a weakened immune system and in some cases, nerve damage. Dr Andrew Dawson, who is director of Westmead Hospital’s Poisons Information Centre, said the number of cases had risen alarmingly.

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“We have had a doubling of the number of calls from hospitals about significantly affected people from nitrous oxide exposure,” he said.

“Those effects are severe nerve injury, or sometimes brain injury.

“There has been a real spike over the last two years.”

“Very recently I had a 20-year-old patient whose brain appeared to have the same level of damage as an alcoholic who had been drinking for 40 years,” toxicologist Dr Andrew Dawson

With the damage caused being irreversible, overuse of nangs can leave patients with a bleak outlook, often needing to learn to walk again, as in the case with the woman featured on ABC’s 7.30 programme.

In Australia, canisters can be purchased in packs of 10 for $10 or in bulk online. Due to the low cost, availability and the ease at which party goers can purchase the cannisters, they have spiked in popularity. According to the Global Drug Survey, nitrous oxide was the seventh most popular drug in the world last year.

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The NSW Drug Squad Commander, Detective Superintendent Tony Cooke, said police were concerned about the use of nitrous oxide.

“There is plenty of information out there about the dangers of the use of nitrous oxide — with side-effects that include sudden death,” he said.

“To suggest it might be OK to inhale gas from a cream whippet or bulb is worse than naive — it’s flat-out stupid.”

To combat this, some states and territories, including New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and the Northern Territory, have made it an offence to supply them to anyone who they believe intends to misuse them.

Sources: ABC/7 Programme / LADbible