What is the Drug Poppers?

A variety of bottles of poppers
Poppers is a widely available inhalant drug. Wikimedia Commons

Definition of Poppers

Poppers is a common slang term for a range of chemical psychoactive drugs called alkyl nitrites (in particular, the inhalant drug amyl nitrite). Initially, the term came into use in the 1960s, when amyl nitrite, then used as a heart medicine, was sold in capsules that were cracked, or "popped," to release the chemical.

How is Poppers Used?

Although rarely used for heart problems today, amyl nitrite is still used to treat cyanide poisoning.

Poppers are widely used as recreational drugs, especially on the gay scene, and are typically taken as fumes inhaled directly from small bottles. Poppers are cheap and easy to acquire, often sold as a room deodorizer or as sex enhancers in sex shops, although their use carries significant risks.

Amyl nitrite was first synthesized in 1844 by Antoine Jérôme Balard and was popularized as a treatment for angina pectoris by Sir Thomas Lauder Brunton. However, it only became recognized as a recreational drug in the 1960s, initially in the gay community. Gay men discovered that poppers helped them feel relaxed mentally and physically, increased sexual arousal, made anal sex easier and less painful, and enhanced orgasm.

These drugs are still widely used among gay men. One study examined the use of poppers among gay men who experienced childhood sexual abuse. While such drugs as crystal meth, ecstasy and ketamine decreased during the 2000s, use of poppers and cocaine remained stable among gay men.

Poppers continue to be used, along with other drugs, in party-and-play sex marathons, in which participants have sex for hours at a time.

The use of poppers as a psychoactive drug spread from the gay scene to the recreational drug community, becoming more widespread with the disco boom of the 1970s and the club and rave scenes of the 1980s and 90s.

It has been recognized as a serious health problem among Canadian Aboriginal communities but crosses social classes. In Britain, 14.9% of university students, 12.8% of male medical students and 6.3% of female medical students have used poppers recreationally. In addition, there has been concern about the recent increase in inhalant use, including poppers, among teens.

With brief, intense effects lasting from just a few seconds to a few minutes, poppers are often used as an adjunct to other designer drugs, such as acid (LSD) and ecstasy. This type of use is not necessarily associated with sex but rather with the desire for an immediate "rush" or sensation of intense relaxation, dizziness, euphoria, mood elevation and intoxication.

Sources

Brennan, D., Hellerstedt, W., Ross, M., & Welles, S. "History of childhood sexual abuse and HIV risk behaviors in homosexual and bisexual men." American Journal of Public Health 97:1107-1112. 2007.

Gentry Wilkerson, R. "Getting the blues at a rock concert: A case of severe methemoglobinemia." Emergency Medicine Australasia 22:466–469. 2010.

Pantalone, D., Bimbi, D., Holder, C., Golub, S., and Parsons, J. "Consistency and Change in Club Drug Use by Sexual Minority Men in New York City, 2002 to 2007." American Journal of Public Health 100:1892-1895. 2010.

Semple, S., Zians, J., Strathdee, S., and Patterson, T. "Sexual marathons and methamphetamine use among HIV-positive men who have sex with men." Archives Of Sexual Behavior 38:583-90. 2009.

Webb, E., Ashton, C., Kelly, P., & Kamali1, F. "Alcohol and drug use in UK university students." Lancet 348:922-925, 1996.

Webb, E., Ashton, C., Kelly, P., & Kamali1, F. "An update on British medical students' lifestyles." Medical Education 32:325-331. 1998.

Weir, E. "Inhalant use and addiction in Canada." Canadian Medical Association Journal 164:397. 2001.

Pronunciation: am-ill nIte-rIte

Also Known As: amyl nitrite, liquid gold, butyl nitrite, heart medicine, room deodorizer

Alternate Spellings: amyl nitrate (in fact, a different chemical with a similar name)

Common Misspellings: amil nitrate

Examples: Eric started using poppers during gay party and play sex sessions.

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