What Are Poppers?

An Often Poorly Understood Inhalant Drug

Bottles of poppers
Wikimedia Commons

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 is amyl nitrite. It is often confused with amyl nitrate, which is, in fact, a different chemical with a similar name, 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.

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.

What Are the Effects of Poppers?

Poppers work very quickly, producing an almost instant high or "rush" of warm sensations and feelings of dizziness, similar to sensations of extreme alcohol intoxication. The effects come on very quickly after inhaling the drug, but unlike drugs such as alcohol, only last for seconds or minutes. While some people find the effects of poppers pleasurable, others find it extremely disorienting and unpleasant.

Poppers are vasodilators, meaning that they dilate the blood vessels. As a result, blood pressure drops rapidly, leading to lightheadedness, sometimes resulting in a brief loss of consciousness and muscle strength, known as syncope. At the same time the heart speeds up, even if the person using poppers is relaxed, known as tachycardia.

Another effect of these drugs is relaxation of the anal sphincter. For this reason, poppers are sometimes used to facilitate anal sex. In addition, some users find that using poppers during sex increases sexual sensations and intensifies orgasm.

Side Effects of Poppers

Several negative effects of poppers have been identified. These include crusty, yellow skin lesions around areas exposed to poppers, such as the nose, mouth, lips, and face.

These can be misdiagnosed as impetigo or severe seborrheic dermatitis. These skin problems usually heal up within seven to 10 days of stopping use of poppers.

Poppers are also quite irritating and can cause sinusitis. They can also trigger allergic reactions accompanied by wheezing and breathing difficulties. As poppers can be scented, allergic reactions can also be triggered by inhaling the perfumes in poppers.

Headaches, which can range from mild to severe, are also common as a result of dilation of blood vessels in the brain. Poppers can also increase the fluid pressure in the eyes, known as intraocular pressure, which may be problematic to people who are at risk of glaucoma.

Who Uses Poppers?

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, 12.8 percent of male medical students and 6.3 percent of female medical students have used poppers as a recreational drug. In addition, there has been concern about the recent increase in inhalant use, including poppers, among teens.

A Word From Verywell

Poppers can seem like a safe, cheap, and easy buzz, with its ease of access and short term effects. However, like other psychoactive drugs, it can be harmful. The safest choice is to avoid poppers altogether.

Sources:

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