My friend Drew spends his days slaving away at a coffee shop. His boss is a she-devil, his customers are impatient assholes, and his paychecks are hardly enough to scrape by. So when Drew gets a moment of escape from the chaos of caffeinating customers, he takes the opportunity to unwind. He ducks behind the counter, snags a fresh can of whipped cream, and shoves it in his mouth, right-side-up. He presses down the nozzle, takes a deep inhale, and a rush of cool air fills his lungs.

Then, for a blissful 30 seconds, Drew is high on nitrous oxide. Sometimes, when his friends stop by the shop, they’ll all enjoy a few whip-its on the company’s dime. Everyone in his social circle loves the stuff. In fact, young people all over the country enjoy the cheap euphoria of huffing nitrous. More than 22 million American teens and adults report using inhalants like whip-its to get high.

Of course, everyone who dabbles in recreational drugs is entirely aware that getting high is not good for you. Yet, when we’re presented with the opportunity, we’ll make a quick cost-benefit analysis, and usually determine that the immediate intoxication is worth risking a few health hazards. But not a lot of research goes into this decision. So we wanted to understand the appeal of a whip-it euphoria alongside its potential consequences, and determine if the high is worth chasing.

To speak to whip-its’ merits, another good friend of mine, Blake*, explains why he frequently sucks the air out of up to 200 nitrous chargers in one sitting. “Once you inhale nitrous oxide, you go into what’s called ‘whip-it space,’” he tells us over the phone. “Your senses start to ‘womp’ out, and you get a euphoric feeling like you’re flying into space, having pressure pushed onto your head and body. Your vision waves, you hear sounds that are stretched out and you might totally space out for a few minutes.”

The pleasant effects Blake describes are achieved by nitrous oxide’s depriving the brain of oxygen. Cutting off this essential element allows the depressant’s effects to take hold, slowing down the brain and body’s responses. This often results in sound distortions and hallucinations, feelings of calm and relaxation, dizziness, difficulty thinking straight and occasional fits of giggles. The drug itself doesn’t kill brain cells, but the lack of oxygen does.

Unsurprisingly, stemming your mind’s supply of oxygen can lead to some ugly outcomes. An entirely likely reaction is that you’ll become unconscious, collapse, and potentially knock your head on some hard furniture. If you can’t tell how many huffs is too many, blue lips are a red flag. If you’re taking too many hits and not getting enough oxygen, this is reflected in the color of your deoxygenated blood, and the bluing of the blood flowing through your lips.

Another unfortunate outcome of regular nitrous use is B12 depletion, which eventually leads to irreparable nerve damage. As an easy preventative measure, B12 vitamins can be bought online or at any drugstore. Without this precaution, you might wind up with a lifetime of stiff limbs, numbness, and weakness.

A less likely reaction, but a viable possibility, is that nitrous oxide can kill you. To avoid an end-all outcome, moderate intake, and give your body time to recover oxygen before purging it again. In addition, take a couple of fast, deep breaths before each huff to raise O2 levels slightly above normal. Most importantly, never use nitrous in a way which would prevent you from getting oxygen if you pass out — as in putting a gas bag over your head or strapping the supply into a mask.

Despite its health hazards and short-lived effects, whip-its are a prevalent drug because they’re so easily accessible. Practically anyone can get their hands on the stuff at smoke shops and porn stores, or even through huge retailers like Target, Walmart and Amazon. Large companies will stock the supply along with their cooking goods, but many head shops see no need to play coy — they’ll place their whip-it equipment directly next to the cigarillos and rolling papers. The placement is a clear indication of vendors’ awareness that the goods are being used to get high.

Ultimately, whip-its are a cheap and accessible high, but its fleeting delirium seems like an insufficient payoff for the damage done. Dead brain cells, nerve destruction and the prospect of being killed by a whipped cream canister are a bit too harsh for our liking. So we’d go so far as to say — nope, whip-its aren’t worth the high. When it comes to nitrous oxide, it’s best to just say N2O.

[originally published August 11, 2017]