What Is Nitrous Oxide and Why Do Dentists Use It?

Nitrous oxide is a well-known gas used to sedate patients and provides pain relief during procedures. However, many patients and dental assistant students find it mysterious. 

Patients, students, and healthcare professionals should know why dentists use it specifically and how it works. Here, we break down more details about nitrous oxide and answer the main questions you might have about this gas.

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What’s Nitrous Oxide?

Nitrous oxide was first discovered in England in 1772 but is now used widely worldwide. When inhaled, the gas produces a euphoric effect and a resistance to pain, which is why it’s now used for dental surgeries. It is particularly useful in dentistry because of how quickly it works.

How’s Nitrous Oxide Used in Dentistry?

Nitrous oxide is the most common inhaled anesthetic in US dentistry. It is administered by being mixed with oxygen and being inhaled through a mask. Patients who inhale the gas should feel its effects within a couple of minutes.

A dental assistant might use nitrous oxide throughout a lengthy dental procedure to keep a patient sedated. A patient might also have a strong gag reflex and serious anxieties about receiving dental care and may need sedation.  

The effects are easy to reverse, as patients only have to breathe in pure oxygen through a mask. Another benefit is that patients are not put to sleep by the gas, so they can respond to instructions or questions if necessary.    

Is Nitrous Oxide Safe?

As with any anesthetic, nitrous oxide is dangerous and only becomes safe when administered by healthcare professionals in a controlled environment like a dental office. Taking nitrous oxide for a long time can cause death, but it is safe to use in short bursts at the dental office.

The American Dental Association (ADA) has strict safety precautions to help with patient safety during administration. Nevertheless, nitrous oxide should not be used if the patient:

  • Is in their first trimester of pregnancy
  • Has respiratory illnesses
  • Has a vitamin B-12 deficiency

When Might a Dental Assistant Administer Nitrous Oxide?

Depending on the state, some dental assistants can administer nitrous oxide on their own, but most limit dental assistants to monitoring only. That being said, a dental assistant is expected to have an education on nitrous oxide and be certified in monitoring its use on a patient during a procedure. 

Final Thoughts

When used in moderation and by healthcare professionals, nitrous oxide can help patients cope with anxiety and pain during dental procedures. Dental assistants might not administer this gas themselves but should know exactly how it works and why it is used. They are expected to monitor its use throughout a procedure and answer questions patients may have if they’re uneasy.

If you’re a dental assistant, we strongly recommend gaining certification that includes nitrous oxide training. It will make you a stronger job applicant and better healthcare professional in this field.