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Nitric Oxide vs. Nitrous Oxide: What's the Difference?

Edited by Janet White || By Harlon Moss || Updated on June 1, 2024
Nitric oxide (NO) is a simple gaseous signaling molecule; nitrous oxide (N2O) is a gas used for anesthesia and as a propellant.

Key Differences

Nitric oxide, with the chemical formula NO, is a free radical molecule which plays crucial roles in various physiological processes, including vasodilation, immune system modulation, and neurotransmission. On the other hand, nitrous oxide, having the chemical formula N2O, is primarily known for its application in medicine as an anesthetic, as well as its recreational use as a "laughing gas".
Nitric oxide, due to its signaling role, has a significant impact on cardiovascular health. Contrarily, nitrous oxide, when inhaled, interrupts pain signals and produces a euphoric sensation.
Both gases are colorless and odorless. However, nitric oxide is considered a vital cell signaling molecule, while nitrous oxide is commonly used for its anesthetic and analgesic effects.

Comparison Chart

Chemical Formula


Primary Uses

Signaling molecule
Anesthesia, propellant


Free radical
Stable gas

Biological Role

Vasodilation, immunity
Pain relief

Recreational Application

Not applicable
Laughing gas

Nitric Oxide and Nitrous Oxide Definitions

Nitric Oxide

Nitric oxide is a signaling molecule in the body.
Nitric oxide helps regulate blood pressure by dilating blood vessels.

Nitrous Oxide

Nitrous oxide is commonly used as an anesthetic.
Dentists often administer nitrous oxide to relax patients during procedures.

Nitric Oxide

Nitric oxide has a simple chemical formula of NO.
Unlike other molecules, nitric oxide contains just one nitrogen and one oxygen atom.

Nitrous Oxide

Nitrous oxide has the chemical formula N2O.
Two nitrogen atoms and one oxygen atom make up nitrous oxide.

Nitric Oxide

Nitric oxide is a free radical.
Due to its free radical nature, nitric oxide can react with other molecules in the body.

Nitrous Oxide

Nitrous oxide can be used as a propellant in food aerosols.
Whipped cream dispensers often use nitrous oxide as a propellant.

Nitric Oxide

Nitric oxide plays a role in the immune system.
Nitric oxide can combat bacteria and other pathogens within the body.

Nitrous Oxide

Nitrous oxide is known as "laughing gas".
When inhaled, nitrous oxide can produce a euphoric and giggly feeling.

Nitric Oxide

Nitric oxide is involved in neurotransmission.
In the brain, nitric oxide can act as a neurotransmitter affecting memory and learning.

Nitrous Oxide

Nitrous oxide contributes to the greenhouse effect.
When released into the atmosphere, nitrous oxide can act as a greenhouse gas, trapping heat.


Why is nitrous oxide called "laughing gas"?

Nitrous oxide is called "laughing gas" because of the euphoric effects it can produce when inhaled.

Is nitric oxide used as an anesthetic?

No, nitric oxide is not used as an anesthetic, whereas nitrous oxide is.

What is the chemical formula for nitric oxide?

The chemical formula for nitric oxide is NO.

Does nitric oxide have a role in the cardiovascular system?

Yes, nitric oxide plays a crucial role in vasodilation, which helps regulate blood pressure.

Is nitrous oxide harmful to the environment?

Yes, nitrous oxide can act as a greenhouse gas and contribute to global warming.

Is nitrous oxide a free radical like nitric oxide?

No, nitrous oxide is not a free radical, while nitric oxide is.

Can nitric oxide act as a neurotransmitter?

Yes, nitric oxide can act as a neurotransmitter in the brain.

What is the chemical formula for nitrous oxide?

The chemical formula for nitrous oxide is N2O.

Can nitric oxide have harmful effects on the body?

In excessive amounts, nitric oxide can be harmful; however, in controlled amounts, it's beneficial.

Is nitric oxide a greenhouse gas?

No, nitric oxide is not a significant greenhouse gas, but nitrous oxide is.

Are both nitric oxide and nitrous oxide colorless gases?

Yes, both are colorless and odorless gases.

Can nitrous oxide be used in food preparation?

Yes, nitrous oxide is used as a propellant in some food aerosols like whipped cream dispensers.

Are both nitric oxide and nitrous oxide used in medical applications?

Yes, while nitric oxide has therapeutic applications, nitrous oxide is used as an anesthetic.

Do both gases have recreational uses?

No, only nitrous oxide is used recreationally as "laughing gas".

Is nitric oxide involved in the immune response?

Yes, nitric oxide plays roles in the body's immune response.

Is nitrous oxide naturally present in the atmosphere?

Yes, nitrous oxide is found in trace amounts in the atmosphere.

Can nitric oxide be used to treat certain medical conditions?

Yes, nitric oxide has therapeutic applications, especially in conditions like pulmonary hypertension.

Is nitrous oxide flammable?

No, nitrous oxide itself isn't flammable, but it can support combustion.

Are there any health risks associated with inhaling nitrous oxide?

Yes, prolonged or excessive inhalation of nitrous oxide can be harmful and lead to oxygen deprivation.

Can nitric oxide help in muscle growth?

Nitric oxide can enhance blood flow to muscles, which may indirectly aid in muscle growth.
About Author
Written by
Harlon Moss
Harlon is a seasoned quality moderator and accomplished content writer for Difference Wiki. An alumnus of the prestigious University of California, he earned his degree in Computer Science. Leveraging his academic background, Harlon brings a meticulous and informed perspective to his work, ensuring content accuracy and excellence.
Edited by
Janet White
Janet White has been an esteemed writer and blogger for Difference Wiki. Holding a Master's degree in Science and Medical Journalism from the prestigious Boston University, she has consistently demonstrated her expertise and passion for her field. When she's not immersed in her work, Janet relishes her time exercising, delving into a good book, and cherishing moments with friends and family.

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