Nitrous oxide may or may not have been involved in the collapse and hospitalization this week of celebrity Demi Moore -- media reports have varied -- but those reports nonetheless seem to have caused many people to pause and ask one question: "What is nitrous oxide?"
"Nitrious oxide" and "Demi Moore" were two of the hottest Google search terms Thursday morning, a one-two punch that's drawing back the curtain on a drug that hasn't quite made its way into the nation's drug spotlight as have marijuana, cocaine and heroin.
Nitrous oxide belongs to a category of drugs known as inhalants and is more commonly known by its street names: whip-its, poppers or snappers. The chemical vapor is "huffed," or intentionally inhaled, by users, triggering mind-altering sensations resembling extreme alcohol intoxication, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
The problem? Nitrous oxide -- and other inhalants -- can fry your brain.
"By displacing air in the lungs, inhalants deprive the body of oxygen, a condition known as hypoxia. Hypoxia can damage cells throughout the body, but the cells of the brain are especially sensitive to it," the institute says.
It adds: "If sufficient amounts are inhaled, nearly all solvents and gases produce a loss of sensation, and even unconsciousness. Irreversible effects can be hearing loss, limb spasms, central nervous system or brain damage, or bone marrow damage. Sniffing high concentrations of inhalants may result in death from heart failure or suffocation (inhalants displace oxygen in the lungs)."
The high from nitrious oxide and other inhalants is fleeting, lasting just a few minutes at most. That can lead to extended huffing sessions, creating even more risk.
The tabloids will no doubt make much of this factoid: Nitrous oxide is considered a young person's drug, mainly because many inhalants -- not just nitrous oxide -- are cheap and plentiful. (Cleaning fluids, hair spray and the like are also huffed.)
In 2009, 2.1 million Americans age 12 and older had abused inhalants such as nitrous oxide, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. A 2010 study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that 8.1% of eighth-graders had abused inhalants at least once in the year prior to being surveyed.
Moore, 49, was hospitalized after paramedics rushed to her home near Benedict Canyon on Monday night. She has been in the news of late amid the spectacular crash-and-burn of her marriage to Ashton Kutcher, 33, following allegations of infidelity on his part.
As for the conflicting media accounts linking nitrous oxide to Moore, TMZ offered an unconfirmed report that directly contradicts the statement that Moore's representatives told The Times this week. They said the actress was suffering from simple exhaustion.
Photo: A silver canister containing nitrous oxide. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times
-- Rene Lynch