David places a small, silver cartridge into a black, metal device which looks like a whipped cream dispenser, otherwise known as a “cracker.” He inserts the cartridge into the bottom of the cracker, picks up a green, latex balloon and begins to fill the balloon with the gas from the nozzle of the cracker. Once the balloon is about the size of a softball, he presses his lips against the opening of the balloon and slowly begins to inhale the gas.
David then sinks into the leather couch in his living room and drops his head back, enjoying his 30-second high. What is David inhaling? Nitrous oxide – more commonly known as taking a “whippet” or “whip-it.”
Nitrous oxide is typically used in medical practices for sedation and pain relief, known as “laughing gas.” However, some students at The University of Tampa are inhaling the substance for a high.
“When I take whippets, it feels like a headrush,” said David, a 21-year-old UT senior who requested to remain anonymous under the name David. “Feels like the world stops in that moment.”
In a survey conducted of 117 UT students, 47% of students said they have heard of UT students inhaling the gas.
“I would say I know about 15-20 students at UT that take them and another 10-15 people from home,” said David. “They’re common between my friends and I. Most of us don’t really even consider it a drug.”
In the same survey, 42% of the students surveyed stated that they personally knew other UT students who recreationally inhale nitrous oxide. When asked how many UT students they know who engaged in this activity, 32% know one to five students, 13% know five to 10 students, 23% percent of these students know 10-15 other students, and about 31% know 20 or more UT students who inhale nitrous oxide.
Although the whippet trend seems to be growing between students at UT, only 29% of the surveyed students said they know the health risks and side effects of inhaling nitrous oxide.
“The abuse of nitrous oxide can be very dangerous,” said Gina Firth, associate dean of wellness at UT. “It can be safely used medically as it is controlled and supplemented with oxygen. When people are abusing this drug, it is not the case. [Abusing nitrous oxide] brings up the danger level exponentially, with the potential to cause damage to your body.”
Firth said the short term effects of nitrous oxide may include delusions, dizziness, headaches, drowsiness, euphoria, feeling of light-headedness, hallucinations, lack of coordination, and slurred speech.
The long term effects of nitrous oxide abuse pose a greater risk. Long-term effects of the drug include brain, bone marrow, heart, kidney, liver, and lung damages, as well as vitamin B-12 deficiency – which may lead to nerve damage, and hypoxia – a condition that occurs when there is not sufficient oxygen reaching a person’s tissues, according to Firth.
In October 2019, a 17-year-old who attended an off-campus party at Penn State University, suddenly died after inhaling nitrous oxide from a whippet container, according to ABC News. His death was ruled accidental after he suffered from immediate asphyxiation or suffocation.
“Whippets are definitely dangerous,” said Ben, a UT junior who requested to remain anonymous. “Yes, I take them. But, I’m really careful about how much I do cause I’ve heard the horror stories from other people.”
Firth claims that it doesn’t take many occurrences of abusing nitrous oxide to create damage to a person’s body and brain.
“While [nitrous oxide] may feel like it is safe due to use in medical procedures, it is not,” said Firth. “You can create damage to your brain and other areas of the body. It is not worth the risk.”
Despite the health risks of recreationally inhaling nitrous oxide, in Florida it is legal to buy and possess up to 16 grams of the gas, according to The Florida Senate. At the age of 18, one can purchase nitrous oxide from local smoke shops, Walmart and other convenience stores.
For reference, Richard Griner, assistant director of campus safety at UT, stated that 16 grams of nitrous oxide is equivalent to two cartridges.
Although the purchasing and possession of nitrous oxide is legal, inhaling, ingesting, or possession with intent to breath or inhale the drug for the purpose of inducing a condition of intoxication or which disturbs the auditory, visual, or mental processes is classified as a second degree felony in Florida, according to Griner.
“I buy them from a smoke shop right down the street from my house,” said Ben. “You can buy the cartridges for $15 each at most places.”
Griner said that there have been instances when Campus Safety has come into contact with students processing nitrous oxide cartridges.
“Any student found in violation of Florida State Statute is subject to criminal charges and arrest by local law enforcement,” added Griner. “In addition, said students would be in violation of the University of Tampa Student Code of Conduct and as such would be referred to conduct for discipline.”
Overall, Griner communicated the health risks of abusing nitrous oxide. “There is no safe level of nitrous oxide use,” said Griner. “The recreational use of nitrous oxide has serious health risks, not to mention the criminal and educational implications. Chasing the euphoric state is enticing but everyone needs to remember that every ‘high’ represents permanently damaged brain cells which disappear and die off. These brain cells are unable to regenerate creating permanent damage.”
Sophia, a UT sophomore who requested to remain anonymous said she inhales nitrous oxide two to three times a week, depending on how stressed she is.
“My roommates actually don’t know that I do them,” said Sophia. “I actually take them alone in my room. But, sometimes my friends from other rooms come over and take them with me.”
Although Sophia said she engages in this activity multiple times a week, she knows there are side effects.
“I’ve always believed that inhaling any type of substance is bad for you,” said Sophia. “But I pride myself on not vaping. This is my form of vaping. So, it kind of weighs itself out.”
Firth advises students to try and find other ways to find joy, reduce stress and have fun that don’t include long term effects.
“There is a lot of stress in our world right now, and it can be tempting to use alcohol or other drugs, such as nitrous oxide to get high and escape,” said Firth. “Remember, what goes up must come down – oftentimes the after-effects can make things worse.”