person with laughing gas
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There are many different types of dental procedures, including regular checkups and cleanings to filling cavities to root canals. Some treatments may necessitate the use of laughing gas. 

What Is Laughing Gas?

Nitrous oxide, commonly referred to as laughing gas, is a mild sedative used during certain dental procedures. It is used to manage a patient’s pain and anxiety from the treatment, though it isn’t intended to put you to sleep completely. Laughing gas has been used in surgical and dental procedures as far back as the mid-1800s.

The gas is colorless and odorless. Once it takes effect, it slows down the nervous system to make the patient feel less inhibited. You could also feel light-headed and tingly. The goal is to make the patient calm and comfortable throughout the dental procedure. 

Laughing gas gets its name from some of the minor side effects, including feeling happy, lightheaded, giggly, and slightly euphoric. Despite its fun nickname, laughing gas probably won’t make you laugh.

Laughing Gas vs. Anesthesia

Sedation — the result of using laughing gas — and anesthesia are used in various dental procedures. They both ease anxiety and prevent a patient from feeling pain during the treatment. They can also cause drowsiness, inhibit coordination, and diminish your ability to remember the procedure. While they do share those similarities, sedation and anesthesia are very different.

Laughing gas is a form of sedation. Sedation causes a patient to feel relaxed and even fall into a light sleep. Dentists refer to the effects of laughing gas as conscious sedation since you’re awake, but your alertness level is slightly decreased. Sedation from laughing gas still allows you to communicate with the dentist throughout the procedure.

General anesthesia puts the patient to sleep throughout the entire procedure. Patients will have no memory of the treatment once they wake up. General anesthesia is administered through an intravenous line by a qualified professional.

Local Anesthesia

Sedation from laughing gas also differs from receiving a local anesthetic. Local anesthesia numbs the direct area and area surrounding the procedure. Think of the gum when getting a cavity filled. 

Local anesthesia comes as one or two injection types.  The first is a block injection, while the second is an infiltration injection. The block injection numbs approximately half of the mouth, while the infiltration injection numbs a smaller area central to the procedure.

How Is Laughing Gas Used?

Nitrous oxide is combined with oxygen. It is then inhaled by the patient through a small face mask. Patients are instructed to breathe regularly. The laughing gas effects kick in after a few minutes.

Children might be administered the laughing gas through a nasal hood that only covers their nose as opposed to a face mask that covers their nose and mouth. The gas also might be scented to help them adjust to wearing the hood.

The Benefits of Laughing Gas

Laughing gas use for sedation is a popular choice among dentists due to its effectiveness and safety for patients. It works very quickly, typically within a few minutes, and it wears off quickly once the procedure is complete. As mentioned, laughing gas still allows you to communicate with the dentist throughout the procedure since you aren’t asleep like you would be under general anesthesia.

Laughing Gas Side Effects

Despite its use benefits in dental procedures, laughing gas does have some side effects. Some of the most common ones are as follows. 

  • Headaches
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Shivering
  • Excessive sweating
  • Sleepiness

Laughing gas could make children feel agitated. It could also make them vomit once the laughing gas is removed from their face. 

Other side effects include feeling as though your arms and legs are heavy. You might even notice a tingling sensation in your extremities. 

Patients should receive oxygen for five minutes once the nitrous oxide is turned off. This helps prevent headaches by purging the remaining gas from the patient’s lungs.

Patients can also eat a light snack prior to the procedure while avoiding a large meal for a few hours afterward. This can help avert nausea or vomiting. Ask your dentist whether or not you can drive after the procedure.

Chances are you won’t suffer any side effects as approximately just five percent of patients experience them. Though, patients can feel these side effects either during the procedure or afterward.

Nitrous oxide use doesn’t present any long-term side effects. However, undergoing frequent procedures that necessitate its use might make your doctor recommend you take a B-12 supplement to help prevent anemia.

If you have questions about potential side effects for you or your child, discuss your concerns with your dentist prior to the procedure.

Risks of Using Laughing Gas

Laughing gas is safe to use under the supervision of a medical professional. In many cases, your dentist will be the one administering it to you or your child.

But laughing gas is still a drug. Like any drug, there are risks involved with using it recreationally.

Certain immediate health risks are associated with nitrous oxide use, including:

  • Fainting
  • Heart attacks
  • Blood pressure drop
  • Hypoxia – fatality due to oxygen loss
  • Anemia
  • Vitamin B-12 deficiency
  • Nerve damage associated with tingling sensations

Using nitrous oxide recreationally for a prolonged period of time can result in numerous long-term health effects, including:

  • Depression
  • Psychological dependence
  • Psychosis
  • Memory loss
  • Weakening of the immune system
  • Numbness in the hands and feet
  • Incontinence
  • Tinnitus, or ringing in the ears
  • Limb spasms
  • Congenital disabilities (usage occurs during pregnancy)
  • Reproductive system disturbances

Mixing nitrous oxide with other drugs or stimulants can put extra pressure on the heart, increase blood pressure, or disrupt heart rate.

Combining it with alcohol can lead to confusion, sluggishness, loss of body control, and diminished concentration level.

Safety Issues

There are also safety issues that can lead to injury when abusing nitrous oxide recreationally.

The gas is extremely cold — -40° C – when stored in a tank or whippets. Inhaling it directly from those devices can lead to frostbite on the nose, lips, throat, and even the vocal cords. Lung tissues can also rupture from the pressure the gas is under in those devices.

Nitrous Oxide for Children

Laughing gas for kids is generally accepted as safe. It is useful for expediting procedures that children need to sit still for an extended time frame. Many children enjoy receiving nitrous oxide as they feel warming or tingling sensations. 

Children tend to feel the effects of the nitrous oxide within a few minutes of it being administered. The gas helps your child relax while relieving any anxiety they might be feeling about the procedure. It also helps alleviate any pain they might feel from the treatment.

Once the procedure is complete and the plastic mask or hood is removed, your child might be given 100 percent oxygen. The oxygen will aid them in fully recovering from the treatment in a matter of minutes.

Preparing Your Child for Nitrous Oxide

There are a few actions you can take prior to your child’s appointment to put them at ease if they’re apprehensive about the procedure.

Make sure your child is wearing loose, comfortable clothing. This is an especially good idea if the procedure will take some time. Also, avoid feeding them solid foods prior to being under sedation.

Let the dentist know of any prescription or over-the-counter medications your child is taking prior to administering the laughing gas. Lastly, for younger kids, bring a comfort item like a stuffed animal or a small toy. Anything special to them can provide additional relaxation and comfort during the procedure.

Who Shouldn't Use Laughing Gas?

Laughing gas is a perfectly suited sedative for many dental procedures. That doesn’t mean it is right or safe for every patient. Consult your dentist prior to any procedure if you have any of these conditions:

  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) or some other respiratory disorder
  • Drug and substance abuse history
  • Currently in the first trimester of pregnancy
  • Vitamin B-12 deficiency
  • A history of mental health conditions

Find a Dentist Near Me

Nitrous oxide is a valuable tool dentists use to perform procedures on adults and children. Consult your dentist to discuss your questions about laughing gas. Or, check out The Smile Generation to find a dentist near you for all your oral care needs, including any procedures that involve laughing gas. You can read patient reviews, peruse staff bios, and schedule an appointment online with a click of your mouse.

Sources:

https://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/what-to-know-about-laughing-gas

https://www.colgate.com/en-us/oral-health/anesthesia/what-does-laughing-gas-do

https://www.ada.org/resources/research/science-and-research-institute/oral-health-topics/nitrous-oxide

https://www.aapd.org/media/Policies_Guidelines/BP_UseofNitrous.pdf

https://adf.org.au/drug-facts/nitrous-oxide/#:~:text=Nitrous%20oxide%20is%20a%20colourless%20gas%20that%20is,by%20people%20to%20feel%20intoxicated%20or%20high.%201

https://www.colgate.com/en-us/oral-health/anesthesia/sedation-vs-anesthesia-at-the-dentist-whats-the-difference

https://www.chkd.org/patients-and-families/health-library/way-to-grow/nitrous-oxide/

https://www.colgate.com/en-us/oral-health/anesthesia/local-anesthesia

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