Ethical considerations in the use of nitrous oxide in pediatric dentistry

J Am Coll Dent. Summer 2010;77(2):40-7.


Nitrous oxide (N2O) has become a routine intervention in contemporary American dental practice, especially in the management of children. However, routines translate to confidence which in turn may lead to overconfidence, such that possible risks and misuses are insufficiently acknowledged. This article ethically evaluates the use of nitrous oxide as a practice routine in treating children. Nitrous oxide administration is analyzed in reference to three internationally acknowledged principles of dental ethics: nonmaleficence, beneficence, and patient autonomy. In reference to the principle of nonmaleficence, the potential for adverse effects of N2O is discussed, particularly when it is administered in conjunction with other sedatives and anesthetics. The importance of abiding by clinical protocols is emphasized. Next, in reference to the principle of beneficence, the authors address the problematic application of N2O for the benefit of individuals other than the patient (e.g., dentists and parents). Finally, the importance of respecting patient autonomy is discussed, specifically the need to obtain explicit consent for N2O. The article supports the continued use of nitrous oxide but advises greater attention to how and why it is administered. Four recommendations are offered for an ethically sound usage.

MeSH terms

  • Anesthesia, Dental / ethics*
  • Anesthetics, Inhalation* / adverse effects
  • Beneficence
  • Child
  • Conscious Sedation / ethics*
  • Dental Care for Children / ethics*
  • Ethics, Dental*
  • Humans
  • Informed Consent
  • Nitrous Oxide* / adverse effects
  • Parenting
  • Patient Rights
  • Risk Assessment


  • Anesthetics, Inhalation
  • Nitrous Oxide