What Does Laughing Gas (Nitrous Oxide) At The Dentist Even Do?

Inhalation Sedation at dental Clinic

Do you get nervous when you think about your dental appointments? Maybe you have a sensitive gag reflex, feel a little claustrophobic, or have sensitive teeth? Nitrous oxide (aka “laughing gas”) is a great solution. It’s also been used for over a century. In fact, in some countries, they even give nitrous oxide to women during childbirth. What you probably want to know is can you feel pain with laughing gas? The short answer is, yes and no. You might feel some minor discomfort, but you really don’t care about it very much because it takes the edge off and makes you feel a little “tipsy.”

What Does Laughing Gas Do?

Dentists use laughing gas because it:

Nitrous oxide is extremely simple and works quickly, so it’s a win-win for both patients as well as dental staff. When you feel more comfortable, it allows your dental team to complete your procedure more efficiently without any discomfort on your part. So, you get to enjoy both a simpler visit as well as a shorter appointment.[1]

There are also fewer contraindications for nitrous oxide than there are for deeper sedatives, so it’s routinely used throughout dental offices all day, every day.

What to Expect if You’re Getting Nitrous Oxide at the Dentist’s Office

If you’ve never had laughing gas before, you essentially breathe the gas-oxygen mixture through a soft nosepiece. Some offices have scented nosepieces. After a few minutes, you tend to feel warm, with tingling sensations in your hands and feet. You’ll be awake, just less worried about things. Continue to breathe in through your nose throughout the entire appointment. Once your treatment is complete, the gas switches to 100% oxygen. You’ll sit there for at least a few minutes (continuing to breathe through your nose) until your dentist dismisses you.

Do Dentists Still Offer Laughing Gas?

Sometimes dentists automatically offer laughing gas. Other times, you have to specifically request the use of nitrous oxide before your appointment. Every office is different, as are the dentist’s care practices. You might want to talk to your dentist about using nitrous oxide if you’re planning treatments or dental procedures like:

While most dentists recommend something deeper during oral surgeries (like wisdom tooth removal) you can still elect to get laughing gas if you want to stay “awake.” Otherwise, they might suggest oral sedation, IV sedation, or something else. Major cases with oral surgeons or other specialists may involve general anesthesia, depending on what treatment is planned.

Can I Still Feel Pain?

Even when your tooth is totally numbed up with local anesthetic, you can still feel some pressure or motions going on around your mouth. With nitrous oxide, it takes the edge off and makes you feel relaxed. But it doesn’t numb your teeth. That’s why your dentist will still use local anesthetic (the numbing medication) even if you’re using nitrous oxide during dental fillings, crowns, or extractions. If they didn’t, then yes, you would still feel pain. Paired together, it’s the perfect recipe for a relaxing and low-key dental experience.

People who might not need to be numbed—such as those getting dental cleanings—can still benefit from some analgesic/pain-relief effects from laughing gas. But the relaxation effects still outweigh any of the decreased sensations that nitrous oxide offers. Chances are if you feel some slight discomfort, the laughing gas will prevent you from caring about it very much. Because quite honestly, it makes you feel like you’ve had a couple of glasses of wine.

When Does Laughing Gas Wear Off?

One of the best things about laughing gas is your dentist can control exactly how long it lasts. From the time it’s turned on, it takes about five minutes to start working. Once your dental procedure is over, they switch it off and the effects of nitrous oxide wear off about just as quickly.

Your dentist can leave the laughing gas on for as long as necessary. Whether you have one filling or are getting a root canal, the nitrous oxide gas is completely safe to use for the entire duration of your treatment. You might only need it for 10 minutes, or you might need it for an hour.

That means no lingering side effects. It’s basically 100% reversible as soon as your dentist turns the nitrous oxide off.

Do You Get High From Nitrous Oxide?

Technically, you can. Especially if the nitrous oxide isn’t properly balanced with oxygen in the right combination. Just like there have been instances of physicians abusing narcotics and prescription pain pills, there have been cases of dentists or dental staff abusing laughing gas. You must be licensed to supervise a patient on laughing gas and only certain healthcare professionals are licensed to even administer it (turn it on for the patient.) If dental staff get caught abusing nitrous oxide, they can lose their license to practice. Recreational use of laughing gas is a serious safety issue and ethics violation.

However, it would take a lot of nitrous oxide and serious oxygen deprivation to make you feel high. When it comes to a dental appointment, you’ll feel more of a “buzz” like you’ve had a few drinks.

Can I Drive After Getting Laughing Gas?

Surprise! Nitrous oxide sedation visits don’t require a second person to drive you home. You can drive afterward without any inhibition or drowsy side effects. The effects of nitrous oxide wear off fairly quickly. Other sedation medications typically leave you drowsy or lightheaded for at least a few hours, if not the rest of the afternoon. But laughing gas is completely reversible. Completely. So once you’ve been cleared at the end of your appointment, it’s totally safe to sit behind the wheel and head back home in your own vehicle.

You’ll need about 10-15 minutes after the appointment to adjust before heading home. Most dentists will put you on 100% pure oxygen for 5-10 minutes after the sedation procedure to clear your system of any nitrous oxide. By the time you pop out of the chair and check out at the front desk, you’ll be good to go.

Laughing Gas Dentist Vs. Sedation Dentistry

Laughing gas is a type of sedation. Inhalation sedation, to be exact. Not all types of sedatives “knock you out” or “put you to sleep.” But some are deeper than others, making you less conscious or aware of what’s going on around you.[2]

Some people do get a little sleepy when they get laughing gas. Especially young kids. But it doesn’t make you fall asleep. If you were to take things a step further and go with oral sedation or IV sedation, you would be much less aware of what was going on around you. Most IV or oral sedation medication also produces an amnesic effect, where you tend to forget about what happened during your appointment.

However, nitrous oxide is the only type of dental sedation that is 100% reversible when the appointment is over. That’s why you can drive yourself home afterward.

Talk With Your Dentist

When it comes to laughing gas, dentists need to make sure you’re healthy enough for any type of dental sedation, including nitrous oxide. Be sure to review your medical history—including any allergies you have to things like eggs, medication you’re taking, or if you’ve had recent surgery—well ahead of your planned appointment. And if you feel super congested to the point you can’t breathe out your nose, then you probably won’t be able to get laughing gas that day or will want to reschedule.[3]

Can you feel pain with laughing gas? Usually not. But it’s not because of the laughing gas, it’s because your dentist will still numb your tooth. Without any local anesthetic, you’ll still enjoy general relaxation from head to toe, making your brain less perceptive to uncomfortable stimuli.

Not all dentists offer laughing gas, so be sure to ask your dental provider if nitrous oxide is an option. Some of them may not use it if they or a staff member are pregnant, for example.

Bottom line: nitrous oxide is safe, effective, and used worldwide because of how well it works. If you have anxiety or don’t like trips to the dentist, laughing gas may be all you need to take the edge off!