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What Are the Different Types of Anesthetic Gases?

By S. Berger
Updated Feb 13, 2024
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General anesthetics, which induce unconsciousness while painful or uncomfortable medical procedures are being performed, can come in a variety of chemical states. One type, anesthetic gases, are often used because they provide benefits, such as easy administration, that other drugs used for the same purpose may not have. In most individuals, they can quickly cause a rapid loss of consciousness that is reversible when the flow of gas is stopped. As with most medications used for sedation, these gases can carry with them the possibility of adverse events, which can vary based on which drug is being used.

Nitrous oxide is one of the more well-known anesthetic gases, and has been in use for about 200 years. Unlike some other anesthetics, this compound can be used both for inducing unconsciousness and pain control. This compound only works for a short time, meaning that most people safely regain consciousness shortly after the flow of this gas stops. One drawback, however, is that the pain relief this drug causes is usually relatively weak, so it usually must still be combined with other substances to reduce pain during surgery. Mixing potent narcotics with anesthetics can increase the chances of dangerous side effects occurring, so this gas is usually only used in controlled environments.

Halogenated ethers are another class of anesthetic gases that have found uses in modern medicine. Compounds in this category include isoflurane, sevoflurane, and desflurane. Generally, these drugs can quickly produce unconsciousness, and their doses can be carefully controlled, reducing the chances of unnecessary exposure. They do not reduce pain to any great extent, however, so they must usually be administered with narcotics. Prolonged usage of these anesthetic gases can sometimes create a risk of damage to several types of tissue, including nerve and kidney cells.

Xenon is also among the anesthetic gases that have been put into use, generally in surgical settings. Its ability to put an individual into an unconscious state is more potent than that of nitrous oxide, so it does not have to be combined with nearly as much oxygen to be used safely. Human tissue seems to tolerate this substance somewhat better than some other drugs, as well, which can reduce the likelihood of damage to cells when used in a medical setting. This gas is expensive, however, due to its rarity, so it must be dispensed by anesthetic devices that can recycle it for xenon to be an affordable option.

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