What's the difference between Nitrous and Nitric oxide?

Vanessa Caldwell
23 January 2012

Above: Image © GreenZeb, Wikimedia Commons

Looking at the formula, the difference between nitric and nitrous oxide is just one nitrogen atom — nitric oxide (NO) has one, while nitrous oxide (N2O) has two. Both nitric and nitrous oxide are gases, but that one little atom makes a big difference chemically!

Did You Know? In 1998, after researching the effects of nitric oxide throughout the 1980s, three scientists won the Nobel Prize for proving that nitric oxide was an important signalling molecule in the body. This was the first discovery naming a gas as a signal molecule.

Nitric oxide is a gas that is found naturally in the human body. This gas is important in cell signalling, by helping cells in different parts of the body talk to one another. It can prevent infections and is also important to heart health. It can increase the amount of blood pumping through your heart and the blood flow to your muscles among other things. Some bodybuilders take supplements to help their bodies increase nitric oxide levels and believe that it will improve their strength and muscle gain.

Did You Know? nitric oxide is also found in exhaust fumes from cars.

Nitrous oxide is also known as "laughing gas" because it gives some people the giggles when they inhale it. It is used by dentists to calm patients who may be anxious or nervous before a minor dental procedure. It is also used in rockets or race cars to give them more power.

Did You Know? Nitrous oxide was discovered by Joseph Priestley in 1772 and was first used as an anesthetic by dentist Horace Wells in 1844.

Recently, nitrous oxide has been popping up on the labels of energy drinks. Too bad nitrous won’t help your energy, strength or speed — it’s barely metabolized by humans. In fact, nitrous oxide isn’t approved for human consumption by the FDA, the organization that regulates food and drugs in the U.S. or by Health Canada. Chances are, it’s being used to produce the bubbles in these energy drinks and has very little to do with the taste or effect of the drink at all.

Learn More!

Article first published June 14, 2010.

Vanessa Caldwell

My job is to write about business, science and technology at MaRS Discovery District, a place in Toronto that helps entrepreneurs turn their research and ideas into businesses. My last job was at a science museum, where I did the following things: wrote the words for animations and exhibits, blew stuff up, played with robots, froze things in liquid nitrogen and, sometimes, dressed in a space suit. When I'm not working, I like experimenting in the kitchen (also known as cooking), knitting, riding my bicycle and daydreaming. 

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Avatar  njmatteo

if nitrous oxide is not fda approved for human consumption, why is it use in canned whip cream?