Nitrogen Narcosis: A Quick Overview for Divers

Nitrogen narcosis is a condition that any diver can suffer from, though the depth at which its effects hit will vary from diver to diver, and it can be extremely dangerous. No matter your susceptibility, you need to understand what the condition is, as well as how to identify, avoid, and cure it. Here's a quick overview of everything you need to know.

What is Nitrogen Narcosis?

Nitrogen narcosis is an altered state of mind rather than an actual injury. As you dive deeper and deeper, the pressure of nitrogen and other gases in the air becomes greater. When you breathe in nitrogen at a higher partial pressure, it can produce a narcotic effect known as nitrogen narcosis. The deeper you dive, the more likely you are to experience nitrogen narcosis.

How Does Nitrogen Narcosis Feel?

Nitrogen narcosis is often described as feeling very similar to alcoholic inebriation, and delivers the following general symptoms:

  • Emotional Changes: Divers often find themselves feeling pleasantly drunk, with strong positive thoughts and a lack of worries. However, some divers may feel the opposite – a dramatic increase in negative, stressful emotions.
  • Reduced Ability to Reason: Narcosis often degrades a diver's ability to make appropriate decisions and evaluate their situation. It also slows down reaction times. For example, a diver may check their air gauge, see that they are running low, and then fail to reach the obvious conclusion that it is time to ascend.
  • Reduced Coordination: Nitrogen narcosis very rarely makes the physical mechanics of swimming difficult, but divers will often find it difficult to make precise movements. For example, writing on an underwater whiteboard or making signs to a buddy might prove tricky.

How Can Nitrogen Narcosis Be Prevented?

Nitrogen narcosis can never be completely prevented, but there are some things you can do to lessen its likelihood of occurring.

Most importantly, you should be well-rested and have abstained from all intoxicants. Before you dive, make sure you plan things out exactly; this will prevent the need for any complex decisions while underwater. As you dive, make sure you exhale thoroughly in order to expel as much carbon dioxide as possible.

What Should You Do if Nitrogen Narcosis Strikes?

In a word: ascend. You'll need to keep an eye on yourself while diving to make sure you aren't exhibiting signs of nitrogen narcosis. It's also best to keep an eye on your buddy to make sure they are acting normally.

If you notice anything suspicious, start ascending slowly. The effects of narcosis can be eliminated simply by moving to a shallower depth, and should be entirely removed once you reach the surface.