Updated on April 2, 2019
See more details about Poppers, or Alkyl Nitrites, in our new blog.
It is widely known that huffing is really bad for you. Like really bad. Inhaling organic solvents or propellants to achieve a “high” is not new, but these new products being sold as “poppers” and distributed throughout the U.S., primarily to men who have sex with men, actually contain harmful solvents and propellants and pose the same health risks as huffing.
What Are Poppers?
Poppers are chemicals known as “alkyl nitrites,” which produce a vapor that can be inhaled. These drugs are sold in small bottles under brand names like “Ram,” “Thrust” and “Rock Hard.” A nitrite chemicals dilate the blood vessels, causing a drop in blood pressure and a corresponding “rush” of warm feelings and dizziness— not unlike an alcohol high. At the same time, somewhat paradoxically, a heart that is under the influence of poppers will speed up. (Read on to learn how poppers can place a considerable strain on the heart.)
In the past, when nitrites were used to treat angina (chest pain caused by reduced blood flow to the heart), they came in small glass capsules that were popped open and sniffed— hence the name “poppers.” Today poppers are commonly sold as room aromas or deodorizers in sex shops, some clubs, market stalls and online.
Types of Harmful Chemicals Used in Poppers
There are different types of alkyl nitrites that can comprise poppers. “Amyl nitrite,” originally used to treat angina, was the first type to enjoy widespread recreational use in the 1960’s. Other types of alkyl nitrites subsequently appeared on the scene after the introduction of tighter restrictions regarding amyl nitrite’s use. Among these newer chemicals: amyl nitrate, butyl nitrite, isobutyl nitrite, and isopropyl nitrite.
Each of these chemicals can be potentially harmful if not deadly. They each also have their own list of scary side effects and complications:
- Amyl nitrate has been associated with memory loss, delirium, hallucinations, paranoid delusions, and death (depending on the dose). Over the longer term, amyl nitrate can cause brain damage, heart disease, liver and kidney failure, permanent hearing loss, slurred speech, and bodily tremors.
- Amyl nitrite can create fatal asphyxiation in the short term and heart and blood vessel problems in the longer term.
- Butyl nitrite, when used over an extended period, can also cause serious damage multiple parts of the body, including the heart, brain, blood vessels, muscles, liver and kidneys. Its immediate effects can also give rise to sudden death.
- Isobutyl nitrite reportedly induced neurotoxicity in mice, impairing both their motor coordination and memory and learning functions, in a 2016 study.
- Isopropyl nitrite can cause visual disturbances, blurriness, blind spots, and retinal damage, according to a warning by the British Medical Journal. The researchers concluded that there is no guarantee that these effects will go away with cessation of isopropyl nitrites.
How Are Poppers Used?
Poppers are usually sniffed from the bottle. Some people prefer to dip a cigarette into the popper bottle and then inhale though the cigarette rather than sniff straight from the bottle.
The effects come on quickly, but don’t last for long and fade after a couple of minutes. Stories proliferate of people mistakenly burning themselves or others, or lighting cigarettes that have been dipped in poppers and burning off their eyebrows.
Side Effects of Poppers
Poppers can cause a range of harmful side effects, including:
- A short, sharp head-rush-like “high” that lasts a couple of minutes
- Enhanced sexual experiences – More specifically, poppers have been reported to make an orgasm feel like it lasts longer; may make an erection feel stronger (although some men have trouble getting an erection after sniffing poppers); and may make it easier for some people to have anal sex by helping to relax the anal sphincter muscles.
- Chemical burns with the development of a rash around the nose and mouth, and/or irritation of the nose and throat
- Feelings of sickness, faintness and weakness
- Poor coordination
- Death, if swallowed – The chemicals in poppers can burn your mouth and throat, trigger nausea and vomiting, and/or can cause lethal poisoning. Anyone who ingests poppers by swallowing them should therefore seek emergency medical help.
Taking poppers is especially dangerous for anyone with heart problems—death has been known to occur among people with heart problems—as well as anyone with anemia or glaucoma (an eye disease).
The Dangers of Poppers – What You Need to Know
Here’s what poppers can do to you:
- They can cause your blood pressure to drop to a dangerous level.
- You can die due to injury to red blood cells and reduced oxygen supply to vital organs.
- You may lose consciousness and could die through choking on your vomit. Using poppers with alcohol can increase this risk.
- Poppers are linked with risky sexual behavior and may lead to catching a sexually transmitted disease.
- They can burn your skin on contact and can kill you if you swallow them. They’re highly flammable.
- They can cause nausea, headache, and disorientation.
Fatal “sudden sniffing death syndrome” has been reported due to development of an abnormal heart rhythm when taking poppers. There are also a number of reports in recent years of cases of temporary and permanent loss of vision in poppers users.
Mixing poppers with alcohol can increase the risk of reducing the oxygen supply to vital organs, unconsciousness and death
Poppers aren’t necessarily all over the place but they are still dangerous. And they are legal, which makes them even scarier.
Brain Damage from Poppers
Maybe the scariest potential fallout of using poppers is brain damage. Research at the University of Maryland’s Center for Substance Abuse Research noted that inhalants like poppers can damage at least two key regions of the brain, the cerebral cortex and the cerebellum. The consequences can be changes in personality, memory loss, hallucinations, loss of coordination and slurred speech.
The 2016 study cited above also confirmed some of these same findings: the mice that received isobutyl nitrite suffered from impaired motor coordination and memory and cognition.
Are Poppers Addictive?
Poppers are not chemically addictive in the same way that some other drugs are. Because these chemicals are often used to enhance sexual pleasure, however, they may have the potential to become behaviorally addictive: people who use them for this purpose may find they have trouble stopping their use, because they heavily associate poppers with “better” or more pleasurable sex.
Regardless of someone’s purpose in using poppers, the bare fact that they are using these dangerous chemicals should be cause for immediate concern and intervention. When you contact a behavioral health provider with expertise in both substance and process addictions, they will be able to guide you through next steps, whether that means intervening on behalf of a loved one or getting yourself on the path to recovery. No chemically induced experience is worth your health or life itself. Get help today.