What Are Poppers?

Side Effects and Dangers of the Inhalant Drug

In This Article

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

side effects of poppers
Verywell / Cindy Chung

Overview

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 misspelled as amil nitrate. Poppers are also known as liquid gold, butyl nitrite, heart medicine, and room deodorizer.

The term poppers 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.

Never try to treat a real or imagined heart problem with poppers, unless prescribed by a physician.

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.

Drug Use

Although rarely used for heart problems today, amyl nitrite has been 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. Instead, people use poppers with the desire for an immediate "rush" or sensation of intense relaxation, dizziness, euphoria, mood elevation, and intoxication.

Effects

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 the 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.

Effects
  • Vasodilation with warm sensations

  • Drop in blood pressure with dizziness, lightheadedness, fainting

  • Tachycardia (racing heart)

  • Relaxation of anal sphincter

Side Effects
  • Skin lesions around nose, lips

  • Sinusitis and respiratory allergic reactions

  • Headaches

  • Increased intraocular pressure

Side Effects

Several negative effects of poppers have been identified. Poppers can potentially lead to a variety of skin irritation 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 the 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 can often occur, which can range from mild to severe. Poppers have been reported to contribute to eye damage in certain individuals.

Population Use

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.

While such drugs as crystal meth, ecstasy and ketamine decreased during the 2000s, the use of poppers and cocaine remained stable among gay men.

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.

One study of British medical students from 1998 showed 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.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Romanelli F, Smith KM, Thornton AC, Pomeroy C. Poppers: epidemiology and clinical management of inhaled nitrite abuse. Pharmacotherapy. 2004;24(1):69-78.

  2. Brown RE, Turner C, Hern J, Santos GM. Partner-level substance use associated with increased sexual risk behaviors among men who have sex with men in San Francisco, CA. Drug Alcohol Depend. 2017;176:176-180. doi:10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2017.02.016

Additional Reading
  • 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.
  • Romanelli F, Smith KM, Thornton AC, Pomeroy C. Poppers: epidemiology and clinical management of inhaled nitrite abuse. Pharmacotherapy,. 24(1):69-78.2004. doi:10.1592/phco.24.1.69.34801.
  • Webb, E, Ashton, C, Kelly, P, & Kamali, 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.