Eli5: how does nitrous oxide work?


Just started working as a sterile tech (dentist janitor) and they use nitrous for deep cleanings. How does it actually numb your body if it’s just nitrogen and oxygen?

In: Biology

It’s an anesthetic, it interferes with your nervous system.

It’s not a mix of nitrogen and oxygen gas (that’s basically what air is), that wouldn’t do anything at normal conditions. It’s a unique chemical made from two nitrogen atoms stuck to one oxygen. It behaves totally differently than nitrogen or oxygen alone, similar to how salt (a chlorine stuck to a sodium) is totally different than sodium or chlorine by themselves.

Nitrogen at very high pressure can have a similar effect, called “nitrogen narcosis”, but typically only deep sea divers run into that, it’s not something that should ever happen at the dentists’ office.