Maybe you’ve heard of them. Maybe you’ve even tried them. Maybe you’re just wondering: “Wait, what are teenagers doing with whipped cream canisters?”
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The connecting thread here: Whippets.
Not to be confused with those sleek little race dogs, whippets are a popular party drug that give you a quick high and potentially serious effects.
“Whippets are inhalant drugs,” says pediatric pulmonologist John Carl, MD. “They are undiluted nitrous oxide, which is also called laughing gas.”
But whippets’ potential to cause harm is no laughing matter. Here, we break down what whippets are and how they can affect your health.
Whippets are an inhalant drug popular among teens and young adults. They’re also knowns as whippits or whip-its. The name is in reference to whipped cream canisters, which contain little chargers that are filled with nitrous oxide. That’s what propels the whipped cream out of the canisters. People who use whippets inhale the gas from those chargers. Some people inhale the gas directly. Others fill something like a balloon with the nitrous oxide gas and inhale it from the balloon. Or they fill a bag with the nitrous oxide and close the bag around their head. The result is a short-lived “high.”
“Inhaling nitrous oxide produces a very transient high — a tingling sensation or a sense of dizziness, calmness or relaxation,” Dr. Carl says. “You might also notice some slurred speech and loss of coordination.”
Whippet cartridges can be bought on their own, not just in whipped cream cans. Some states have made it illegal to sell nitrous oxide canisters to people under the age of 21 in an effort to curb inhalant abuse.
Nitrous oxide is commonly used for sedation to help people relax during medical procedures. It’s often used as a remedy for anxiety at the dentist’s office during a cleaning or a dental filling. But inhaling nitrous oxide outside of a medical facility is a much different circumstance.
“In medical use, nitrous oxide is given in conjunction with a pretty high-flow oxygen,” Dr. Carl explains. “That helps to keep you safe from some of the effects of the gas. People using it recreationally aren’t taking those precautions. They’re just getting straight shots of it, which can be harmful, particularly with repeated use.”
Like abusing other kinds of inhalants, such as paint thinners or glue, whippets use can pose threats to your health. Anytime you purposefully inhale or ingest things not meant to be put in your body, you’re not doing great things for your health.
Using whippets impairs your judgment and motor skills. That can lead to accidents and injuries. Studies have also shown that recreational use of whippets can cause psychiatric symptoms as well, including hallucinations and paranoia, which can also result in serious injury to yourself and others.
Additionally, whippet use can cause:
Repeated exposure can have more dangerous consequences. More on that in a bit.
Whippets may not be physically addictive in the same way some other illegal drugs are, but chasing the high you can get from whippets can be psychologically addicting.
Using cocaine, opioids and other physically addicting substances gives you a rush of dopamine and serotonin, commonly referred to as “happy hormones.” That hormone-altering rush is part of what makes those drugs physically addicting — they change the very physiology of how your body functions.
Whippets, on the other hand, don’t have an effect on dopamine or serotonin. Instead, a whippet high is the result of decreased oxygen and increased carbon dioxide in your body.
In that way, whippets aren’t physically addicting in the same way as other drugs. They don’t change the way your body functions at its most basic levels. But they can cause a psychological craving.
“In a lot of people’s minds, particularly younger people whose brains aren’t fully formed yet, it’s easy to think, ‘If a little bit is good, more must be better,’” Dr. Carl states. “So, it’s easy to see how people can continue to chase that high and disregard potential dangers.”
The euphoric feeling that comes from using whippets is short-lived, lasting only a few seconds or minutes. So, repeated use over a short period of time is common. The more whippets you inhale, the more you’re decreasing the oxygen in your body.
Abusing inhalants like whippets over time can cause significant damage, particularly to your muscles, kidneys and liver.
“Using whippets extensively can impair your body’s ability to process vitamin B12, which can lead to severe muscle weakness, to the point of hospitalization,” he continues. “The effect in some people who use whippets can be similar to people living with Guillain-Barré syndrome, which is a condition when the immune system attacks the body’s nerves.”
In cases of extreme B12 deficiency, people can be hospitalized for long periods of time and even permanently lose muscle function.
“Your kidneys and liver are ‘end organs,’ meaning they’re at the end of the supply chain of oxygen in your body,” Dr. Carl explains. “When you use whippets repeatedly, your decrease the oxygen saturation in your body. That means those later-stage organs will have less oxygen available to them and, therefore, become damaged.”
Like other inhalant drugs, whippets can be easy for young people to get ahold of and abuse. Dr. Carl advises parents to be cognizant of whippets and other household products that can be dangerous when used incorrectly.
“Whippets are one more danger that parents should be aware of, particularly because they’re easy to obtain and, therefore, easy for teenagers to try out, particularly if they don’t understand the long-term effects,” he adds.
“Young people are vaping. Young people are huffing. Whippets are something to add to this growing list of common household things that can be used in illicit ways and cause some pretty significant damage.”