What are Poppers?

A variety of bottles of poppers
What are poppers? A collection of widely available inhalant drugs. Wikimedia Commons

What are poppers?

Poppers is a common slang term for a range of chemical psychoactive drugs called alkyl nitrites, and in particular, the inhalant drug amyl nitrite.

Quick Facts About Poppers

The most common type of poppers inhalant, amyl nitrite, is pronouced am-ill nIte-rIte. It is often confused with amyl nitrate, which is, in fact, a different chemical with a similar name, which is often misspelt as amil nitrate.

Poppers are also known as liquid gold, butyl nitrite, heart medicine, and room deodorizer. It probably goes without saying that you should never try to treat a real or imagined heart problem with poppers, unless prescribed by a physician, and you should never leave an open bottle of poppers in a room, whether or not you hope to deodorize it. It would not be an effective deodorizer, and could be harmful.

The term first began being used for these drugs in the 1960s, when amyl nitrite, which was then used as a heart medicine, was sold in capsules that were cracked, or "popped," to release the chemical.

How are 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

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.

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.

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