What are Whippets?

Whippets refer to empty canisters of whipped cream that can be used to inhale nitrous oxide (i.e. laughing gas). Nitrous oxide is a colorless gas with a somewhat sweet odor that is used as a pain reliever, an anxiety-reducer, and an anesthetic.

Nitrous oxide interacts with the body in various ways to have its multiple effects. First, nitrous oxide binds to different types of opioid receptors in the body to reduce pain. Nitrous oxide also can stimulate the release of the body’s own opioids–including endorphins and enkephalins–to relieve pain. Second, animal studies suggest that nitrous oxide binds to benzodiazepine receptors in the body to reduce feelings of anxiety. Binding to benzodiazepine receptors increases the concentration of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA in the body, which has a calming effect on the central nervous system. Lastly, it is thought that nitrous oxide–like other inhaled anesthetic agents–interacts with neurons in the brain to induce anesthesia.

In the medical field–especially in the case of dental procedures–nitrous oxide is used to reduce pain, calm patients, and provide anesthesia. In the medical field, for the most part, this substance is safe and effective because it is monitored and controlled by trained professionals. When nitrous oxide is used to get high, however, it goes from being safe and useful to being a potentially dangerous substance of abuse.

What Side Effects Are Associated with Whippets?

The major cause of death for individuals using whippets and other abused inhalants is asphyxiation. Inhaling nitrous oxide from a canister over and over again limits the amount of oxygen that can get into the body. Moreover, high concentrations of nitrous oxide can actually “displace available oxygen in the lungs.” Inhalants interfere with oxygen delivery to the body and increase the likelihood that an individual could suffocate and die.

Use of whippets can also lead to serious nerve damage. This is because nitrous oxide “irreversibly inactivates” B12, a vitamin that is essential to nerve function. The nerve damage associated with nitrous oxide abuse can present as numbness or tingling in an individual’s extremities, paralysis, and mental issues. And this damage can be permanent; a study of individuals who abuse nitrous oxide found that–even with vitamin B12 supplementation–75% of participants never fully recovered from nerve damage.

It is important to remember that whippets are canisters of compressed nitrous oxide that propel whipped cream from a canister with a “burst of cold air.” When individuals inhale nitrous oxide by using a whippet, that same burst of cold air can hit their skin, their vocal cords, and their lungs, causing damage. One man who abused nitrous oxide ended up with a severe frostbite injury that led to tissue death involving the skin over his left cheek.

Besides the abovementioned side effects, use of whippets can result in dizziness, falls, nausea, hallucinations, and even heart attack. And, as with other abused substances, whippets can become addictive.

How Big is the Problem with Whippets?

In their “2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health,” SAMHSA found that over 21 million people had used inhalants during their lifetime. This seems like a large number of people, however, this figure translates into 8% of those studied using inhalants like whippets over the course of a lifetime.

Whippet abuse may not be as notable an issue as the opioid epidemic or the rise in meth addiction. Nonetheless, use of whippets continues to be studied and continues to appear in the news. A Dutch study of the use of whippets by van Amsterdam and others in 2015 observed that nitrous oxide abuse was on the rise and was especially prevalent “among clubbers and ravers.” Similarly, an American study by Garakani and others in 2016 noted an increase in the number of case studies published on nitrous oxide abuse. And, just two months ago, a local newspaper out of Massachusetts reported on a couple that had been arrested for stealing “dozens of cans of whipped cream” to get high.

Finding Solutions

The issues that whippets pose cannot be addressed if people continue to act as though there aren’t any. Type “whippets” into any search engine, and you will find people who are trying to convince others–and perhaps themselves–that whippets aren’t that dangerous. One individual on a Reddit thread wrote “I’ve done 100s [. . .] with no ill effects, keeping monthly breaks in between.” Another individual on Yahoo! Answers wrote with regards to whippets, “Don’t worry, the drug you took has no long-term ill effects!” As has been discussed above, though, whippets are not safe and can lead to permanent health issues. Before you use a whippet to get high, consider the following:

  • Individuals respond to drugs in different ways: Just because one person has done hundreds of whippets with no ill effects does not mean that the same will be true for you. You could do one whippet, get high, and never use one again. You could also do one whippet, then multiple whippets, and end up with irreversible brain and nerve damage. It isn’t worth your life and your health to try a whippet to see which reaction you have to the drug.

  • “Legal” does not mean “safe”: Only certain states have passed nitrous oxide laws, which makes the use of whippets in many states a “legal high.” But just because whippet use is legal in your state does not mean that you won’t get hurt getting high.

  • Individuals can get addicted to inhalants like whippets, and individuals can overdose on inhalants: They may not be as addictive as heroin or as commonly overdosed on as opioids, but you can get addicted to and overdose on whippets.

If you or someone you know is battling an addiction to whippets, help is only a phone call away.