What Are Poppers?

Inhalant drugs that cause a quick high but have many risks

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What Are Poppers?

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.

Poppers are typically sold in small bottles and are often marketed as room aromas or deodorizers, although they are not used for that purpose. They have a strong solvent smell. You should never taste or swallow poppers as this can be fatal.

When inhaled, poppers lead to an instant high that includes symptoms such as increased heart rate, dizziness, and feelings of euphoria.

side effects of poppers

Verywell / Cindy Chung

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.

This article discusses what poppers are, how they are used, and the effects that they have. It also covers some of the side effects the substances may cause and whether poppers are addictive.

How Are Poppers Used?

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.

While not commonly prescribed, the medication is still sometimes used today to treat the pain associated with angina attacks. It works by increasing the heart's blood and oxygen supply.

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

Though alkyl nitrites themselves are legal, selling them over the counter for human consumption is not. As a result, the products are often sold as "room deodorizers" or "leather cleaners," though they are not effective or truly intended for those purposes.

Street Slang Terms

Street names for poppers include labels such as Rush, Jungle Juice, Sub-Zero, and Iron Horse.

Drug Use

Although rarely used for heart problems today, amyl nitrite has been used to treat cyanide poisoning. Poppers, on the other hand, are widely used as recreational drugs, especially by gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men. Poppers 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 (MDMA). People commonly use poppers with the desire for an immediate "rush" or sensation of intense relaxation, dizziness, euphoria, mood elevation, and intoxication.

Difference Between Whippets and Poppers

Whippets are another type of inhalent that are sometimes confused with poppers. While poppers contain amyl nitrate, nitrous oxide is the psychoactive ingredient in whippets. 

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. It 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.

According to SAMHSA's 2015–2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, it's estimated that while only 3.3% of the U.S. adult population has ever used poppers, about 35% of gay men have. While the use of drugs such 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 community to the wider recreational drug scene, becoming more widespread with the disco boom of the 1970s and the club and rave scenes of the 1980s and 1990s. Its use has been recognized as a serious health problem among Canadian Aboriginal communities but crosses social classes.

For example, one study of British medical students from 1998 showed 12.8% of male medical students and 6.3% of female medical students had used poppers as a recreational drug. In addition, there has been concern about the recent increase in inhalant use, including poppers, among teens.

Recap

Poppers were prescription drugs originally created to treat heart conditions, but are used today primarily as recreational drugs.

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 and 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; this is 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 or lips

  • Sinusitis and respiratory allergic reactions

  • Headaches

  • Increased intraocular pressure

Recap


Poppers create an almost instant high that includes feelings of euphoria and warm sensations. Because they relax smooth muscles, poppers are sometimes used to facilitate anal sex.

Side Effects of Poppers

There are several negative effects associated with poppers. 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 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.

Can You Get Addicted to Poppers?

There is no evidence that using poppers leads to physical or psychological addiction. However, regular and heavy use may result in a tolerance to the substance, which means you would have to inhale more of the substance to achieve the same high.

Can you overdose on amyl nitrite? Fatal overdoses are rare, but inhaling large doses can lead to unconsciousness, low blood pressure, or cardiovascular problems. 

Poppers can be dangerous and potentially fatal when used at the same time as medications prescribed to treat erectile dysfunction (ED).

How to Get Help

Poppers can be dangerous, particularly when combined with other substances. If you want to stop using poppers, there are steps you can take to get help. If you believe you might have a problem with popper use, talk to your doctor. They can recommend treatment options or refer you to a mental health professional. 

If you or someone else has a serious side effect after using poppers, contact 911 or go to your local emergency room.

If you have been using poppers to induce relaxation and enhance sex, alternatives can include foreplay and relaxation strategies such as meditation.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

A Word From Verywell

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

7 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.
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Additional Reading

By Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD
Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD is a psychologist, professor, and Director of the Centre for Health Leadership and Research at Royal Roads University, Canada.