Doctors warn of rise in cases of life-changing nerve damage and paralysis from love of hippy crack

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Doctors have warned of a ‘terrifying’ hippy crack epidemic in the UK after a rise in patients suffering ‘life-changing’ nerve damage and paralysis.

Nitrous oxide — better known as ‘nos’ or laughing gas — has become a popular recreational drug in the last decade.

Users inhale the colourless gas through balloons or canisters, which cost just £25 for industrial-sized containers.

It has been widespread at festivals this year and the small silver canisters are often spotted strewn across town centres and parks. 

But medics are warning that as its popularity has skyrocketed, so have cases of spinal cord and nerve damage, including paralysis.

Dr Mark Ellul, a specialist registrar in neurology in Liverpool, claimed youngsters are coming into hospital with ‘severe and long-lasting’ damage after using the drug.

Nos can starve the body of a crucial vitamin and oxygen, which can lead to life-changing nerve damage and suffocation.

Official figures show the number of young people in England and Wales using the drug has soared 50 per cent in the last decade.

Just six per cent of the millennial generation, who were aged 16 to 24 a decade ago, reported taking the drug, compared to nine per cent of the Gen Z age group.

At least 45 people have died after taking the drug since 2010, with many more hospitalised.

It comes after a 16-year-old girl with asthma died after inhaling nitrous oxide at a house party in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire. The exact cause of her death has not been revealed but her family have suggested laughing gas is to blame.  

Nitrous oxide is regularly taken by young people at parties and festivals, and the small silver canisters it is usually sold in have become a familiar sight in town centres and parks

Nitrous oxide is regularly taken by young people at parties and festivals, and the small silver canisters it is usually sold in have become a familiar sight in town centres and parks 

In Southgate, north London, local officers have repeatedly come across large piles of the supersized canisters in public spaces

In Southgate, north London, local officers have repeatedly come across large piles of the supersized canisters in public spaces

Kayleigh Burns, from Halewood, died at a house party in Leamington Spa

Kayleigh Burns, 16, an asthmatic, collapsed at a house party in Leamington Spa and died after being rushed to hospital 

What is Nitrous Oxide and is it illegal?

Nitrous Oxide, has been nicknamed ‘laughing gas’ due to the euphoric and relaxed feeling people who inhale it can sometimes feel.

The substance – also known as ‘hippy crack’ – is normally bought in pressured canisters, commonly transferred to a container, e.g. a balloon, from which the gas is inhaled.

Although possession of laughing gas is not illegal, English law prohibits its sale to under-18s if there is a chance they will inhale it. 

Nitrous Oxide canisters and cigarette butts litter a roadside in Camden Town on February 11

Nitrous Oxide canisters and cigarette butts litter a roadside in Camden Town on February 11

The effects of nitrous oxide vary depending on how much has been inhaled but they include:

• Feelings of euphoria, relaxation and calmness.

• Dizziness, difficulty in thinking straight and fits of giggles/laughter.

• Sound distortions or even hallucinations.

• In some people, a headache can be an unwanted immediate effect.

Risks include:

• Unconsciousness or death from lack of oxygen. This occurs when the available oxygen for breathing is effectively pushed out by the nitrous oxide.

Dr Nikos Evangelou, a neurologist at Nottingham University Hospital, tweeted that there is an ‘epidemic’ of spinal cord and nerve damage due to nitric oxide.

‘Terrifying to see paralysed young people from laughing gas canisters,’ he said.

The phenomenon was ‘almost unknown’ last year but medics now see cases weekly, Dr Evangelou said.

Dr David Nicholl, a consultant neurologist at University Hospital in Birmingham, took to TikTok to share concern about the ‘epidemic’.

‘This stuff is dangerous. Seven years ago, this was a neurological rarity, even a couple of years ago I was seeing cases maybe once a month, now I’m seeing them every week,’ he said.

Dr Nicholl urged medics to ask young patients with unexplained neurological symptoms whether they use nitrous oxide and where they get it, so suppliers can be reported.

He called for the age limit for buying nitrous oxide canisters — which cost just £25 compared to £50 a year ago — to rise to 25. 

Dr Ellul told The Guardian that his team now treats one case every few weeks.

He said: ‘Most are young people, and many were previously unaware that the substance could be harmful. 

‘In some cases the effects can be quite severe and long lasting.’

Pictures from Notting Hill carnival at weekend show hundreds of cannisters littering the streets.

Experts warn revellers are increasingly turning to large industrial-sized tubes of nitrous oxide, which contain 80-times the usual amount of the gas. 

The colourless gas can be inhaled directly from a pressurised canister, or through balloons that have been filled with it.

The ‘high’ kicks in immediately, causing users to feel dizzy, relaxed and giggly, and lasts one to two minutes, on average.

Having too much, however, can make users faint or suffocate due to a lack of oxygen to the brain if they inhale highly concentrated forms of the gas.

Heavy and regular use can cause a vitamin B12 deficiency and anaemia.

B12 is essential in the body’s production of myelin — the fatty sheath around nerves in the body.

A lack of myelin can trigger nerve damage, leading users to suffer painful tingling and numbness in their fingers and toes that makes walking difficult, as well as spinal cord damage.

Large cannisters are not illegal and are used in the catering industry, where it is used as a propellant for whipped cream. The gas is also used for anaesthesia.

But selling it to under-18s is against the law if there is a chance they will inhale it.

The latest Crime Survey for England and Wales shows one in 11 people aged 16 to 24 said they took nitrous oxide in the year to March 2020, compared to one in 16 in the year to March 2013.

Super-sized canisters of nitrous oxide or 'noss' pictured on the streets of Notting Hill this morning

Super-sized canisters of nitrous oxide or ‘noss’ pictured on the streets of Notting Hill this morning 

Fast Gas, the company who made the cylinders seen at Notting Hill, say their products are used to produce whipped cream in restaurant environments

Fast Gas, the company who made the cylinders seen at Notting Hill, say their products are used to produce whipped cream in restaurant environments

Fast Gas, the company who made the cylinders seen at Notting Hill, say their products are used to produce whipped cream in restaurant environments

The firm's website strongly suggests they are also intended for recreational purposes, with a section reading: 'We find your privacy very important, for this reason we do not use logos on the box'

The firm’s website strongly suggests they are also intended for recreational purposes, with a section reading: ‘We find your privacy very important, for this reason we do not use logos on the box’ 

The containers are readily available online and on social media, while last weekend dealers were seen going around the Electric City festival in Gunnersbury Park, West London, offering inflated balloons for £10. 

In Southgate, north London, local officers have repeatedly come across large piles of the supersized canisters in public spaces.

Fast Gas, the Amsterdam-based company who made many of the cylinders seen at Notting Hill Carnival, say their products are used to produce whipped cream in restaurant environments.

However, their website strongly suggests they are also intended for recreational purposes, with a section reading: ‘We find your privacy very important, for this reason we do not use logos on the box. 

‘So nobody can see where the order is placed. It arrives anonymous at your doorstep, or if you order for a friend at his of course. #just asking for a friend!’

A Government commissioned review is now looking at whether more needs to be down to curb the use of larger canisters.

A young woman named Kerri Anne was left partially paralysed after consuming too many small canisters containing nitrous oxide.

Alex Littler, 16, almost died after taking laughing gas at Parklife festival. He was rushed to hospital on Monday complaining of a swollen neck and breathlessness because of air leaking from his lung

Alex Littler, 16, almost died after taking laughing gas at Parklife festival. He was rushed to hospital on Monday complaining of a swollen neck and breathlessness because of air leaking from his lung

She told the BBC that she would consume 600 cannisters a week and would be left sleeping for 12 hours a day, vomiting, having sweats and unable to eat, drink, walk or use her hands.

Her frequent and heavy use of the drug left her with no sensation in her legs and under the constant care of her dad.

She added: ‘I can’t do anything for myself at the moment. It’s not like I can get up and walk out of my house, which is why I have my dad. I have to use a commode. He does literally everything for me.’

A dealer of the drug said it was ‘a walk in the park’ to find users on social media who wanted to buy the larger canisters.

‘It’s dangerous. I don’t think people should do it, but as long as they do I am going to sell it,’ the anonymous dealer said.

In June, a 16-year-old boy almost died after taking laughing gas at Parklife festival, in Heaton Park, Manchester caused his lung to burst.

Alex Littler, from Ellesmere Port, Cheshire, was rushed to hospital after complaining of a swollen neck, breathlessness and that his chest felt like ‘popping bubble wrap’.

The year 11 student confessed to doctors and that he’d inhaled nitrous oxide while at the festival on June 11 and 12.

He was diagnosed with a ruptured and leaking lung and told he was lucky to be alive.

And it was revealed today that a 16-year-old girl died after inhaling nitrous oxide at a house party in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire.

Kayleigh Burns, an asthmatic, collapsed shortly after being filmed taking laughing gas. The exact cause of Kayleigh’s death has not been revealed but her family have suggested laughing gas is to blame.   



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