Nitrous oxide

Nitrous oxide

You may know this gas as happy gas or laughing gas. It is a sweet smelling, colourless gas used to ease pain and anxiety. This gas is safe for use in children and there are no long-term side effects.

Key points to remember

  • it helps to be near and to comfort your child during the use of nitrous oxide
  • this gas is safe for use in children and there are no long-term side effects
  • your child will feel more comfortable if you stay with them during the procedure

What is nitrous oxide?

You may know nitrous oxide as 'happy gas' or 'laughing gas'. It is a clear gas with no smell, used to ease pain and anxiety. It is often given at the dentist or to ease the pain of labour in childbirth.

How will it help my child?

Your child may be offered nitrous oxide gas while the doctor or nurse carries out a procedure such as stitches, dressings, tube changes or a blood test. The gas helps to ease the pain and anxiety your child may feel, but usually does not make them fall fully asleep.

When your child starts to breathe the nitrous oxide, they will feel drowsy within a couple of minutes. The gas will be continued until the procedure finishes and will wear off quickly when the gas is stopped. This means your child can quickly get back to their usual activities (playing, eating etc).

How will it be given?

Nitrous oxide will be given by a nurse or doctor. Before it is given, your child will be assessed to make sure this is the best option. You will be asked to make sure your child stops eating and drinking for a certain time before they have the gas (usually at least 2 hours, but may be longer if other sedating medicines will be used with the nitrous oxide). This helps reduce the risk of vomiting.

Your child will be given a mask or a mouthpiece attached to a machine through which they will breathe the gas. It can be helpful to look at and play with the mask with your child before the procedure starts so your child is comfortable with it before it is placed on their face.

You are welcome to stay while your child is having the gas. The best thing you can do is to stay where your child can see you and hold their hand. The gas will be given a few minutes before the procedure starts and will continue until it is finished. The gas may make your child feel 'floaty', warm and tingly. Your child may or may not remember anything about the procedure.

When the nitrous oxide is stopped, your child will then be given oxygen through a mask to clear the gas from their lungs; this last stage in which only oxygen is given is very important. After your child has had the oxygen and is awake and alert they will be able to eat and drink normally.

Are there any risks?

This gas is safe for use in children and there are no long-term side effects from occasional use.

Other side effects may occur, but they are usually minor and get better quickly. Some children feel sick or vomit during nitrous oxide sedation. The staff looking after your child will know how to manage these problems if they occur.

Young children may not like having a mask on their face. They may feel angry or confused by the mask and gas and will need you to stay close and comfort them. The nurse or doctor may need to hold the mask firmly over your child's face at first until the gas starts to work and your child relaxes.

What can I do to help?

Hospitals can be frightening places for children. If a child feels sick or is in pain, it can be upsetting to have nurses and doctors they don't know look after them. It helps if parents stay with their child to look after and comfort them during and after most procedures. If your child asks about the procedures being done, reassure them and explain in simple terms what is being done and why. Always tell the truth. 

The best thing you can do is to stay where your child can see you and hold their hand.

It is usually helpful to bring your child’s comfort toys or items which help them relax. For example a teddy, dummy, blanket, book, a phone/IPAD with a favourite game. These familiar items can be very comforting. 

At times it is helpful to tell stories, talk about the family or anything else that may help to take their mind off the procedure. Remain calm; if you get upset so will your child. The staff are there to help you and your child. If you would like more information please ask the nurse or doctor caring for your child.

Starship Foundation and the Paediatric Society of New Zealand acknowledge the cooperation of The Children's Hospital at Westmead, Sydney Children's Hospital at Randwick, and Kaleidoscope - Hunter Children's Health Network in making this information available to patients and families.

This page last reviewed 31 August 2015.
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