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Poppers: A Guide To What They Are and the Side Effects of Using Them

Maybe you’ve been out at a party, concert, or festival and seen people who are huffing something and then seeming to have an even better time than they were before. Perhaps you’ve tried poppers in the past and want to know more about them now. Even if you’ve never seen a popper before and doubt you ever will, it’s a good idea to have an understanding of what they are, where they came from, and how they can affect your life should you decide to use them.

Image credit: https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/nitrite-poppers

Defining Poppers

“Poppers” is a term used to refer to psychoactive drugs known as alkyl nitrates. More specifically, they refer to amyl nitrite, which is an inhalant drug and the most common type of popper. You may hear people call them by other names such as room deodorizers, butyl nitrite, liquid gold, or heart medicine. Even more potential names include Jungle Juice, Rush, Iron Horse, and Sub-Zero.

It is important to note that many countries have banned amyl nitrite in the wake of poppers becoming so popular. That doesn’t mean you can’t still find them. They’ll just have a different (but very similar) ingredient. You may find poppers that include butyl nitrite, pentyl nitrite, or propyl nitrite, all of which work much like amyl nitrite in terms of how the popper experience feels.

You may sometimes hear poppers referred to as whippets, but the reality is that they are two different drugs. Whippets do not contain amyl nitrite. Their active ingredient is nitrous oxide, which people sometimes refer to as laughing gas.

The Origin of Poppers

The term “poppers” comes from the 1960s when amyl nitrite first become popular. Back then, it was a heart medication that was sold in capsules. The capsules had to be “popped” to release the drug. Although it is no longer a common prescription, it is still sometimes used today to treat pain related to angina attacks because it increases the blood and oxygen supply to the heart. It may also be used to treat cyanide poisoning.

Alkyl nitrites are not legally allowed to be sold over the counter for human consumption. For this reason, the stores that sell them often advertise them as leather cleaners or room deodorizers.  They are often packaged in small bottles that look similar to energy shots and are easy to find in adult stores, some convenience stores, and online.

Poppers in the Gay Community

Although people from all walks of life use poppers, they first became popular in the gay community in the 1960s because they helped people to relax, increased arousal, and made intercourse less painful. In fact, these are the reasons that the drug is still popular in the gay community today. According to a survey conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, only 3.3% of adults in the United States used poppers between 2015 and 2017, but about 35% of gay men had.

Since poppers were originally developed in the United Kingdom, they didn’t become very intertwined in gay culture in the United States until the ’70s. They gained popularity quickly when they did arrive, though. In fact, corporations began advertising them to gay men via full-page ads in magazines and newspapers. By the mid-1970s, poppers were a huge part of gay culture. This was because there were such a concentrated number of consumers in big cities like New York and San Francisco, not to mention the fact that the product was small enough to easily drop in the mail.

Because popper use intertwined with the beginning of the HIV epidemic, some researchers even initially thought that poppers were to blame for the transmission of the disease. Of course, as scientists learned more about HIV, that theory was quickly debunked.

It is important to note that some experts believe that using poppers leads to riskier sexual activity, which can increase the chance of catching a sexually transmitted infection, including HIV. Research from the National Library of Medicine in 2017 also links the long-term use of poppers in gay men to higher risks of cancers related to viruses, although the participants in the study did not have HIV.

Popper Use in Other Communities

It isn’t just gay men who use poppers. By the 1970s, their use became more widespread due to the popularity of disco clubs. They continued to be popular in the rave and club scenes in the 1980s and 1990s. Today, poppers are used around the world and span communities that range from gay ravers to medical students and even teenagers.

How Poppers Are Used as a Recreational Drug

When used recreationally, poppers are inhaled as fumes that come from small bottles. They are cheap and easy to find, which is part of the reason they are so popular, especially among teenagers. They are also commonly sold as sexual enhancers in adult shops, making them popular among adults as well. In many cases, people who use poppers use them with other drugs to enhance the experience. This is especially true among those who use ecstasy, acid, or other designer drugs.

How People Take Poppers

The most common way that people take poppers is to huff them by holding one nostril closed and using the other to take a whiff. It’s important not to get it too close to the nostrils, though, as they are highly acidic and can cause skin lesions and burns.

There are other “unique” ways to take poppers as well. Some people pour the liquid into a bottle of soda, shake it up, and let the vapor rise with the bubbles. Others drip them into socks and put the sock in their mouths to inhale the vapor (which is extremely dangerous).

Ideally, you will never decide to use poppers since they’re dangerous. However, those who do use them should never, ever drink the liquid out of the bottle. The highly acidic liquid will burn the mouth and throat and may even cause death.

Different poppers have different effects. One known as Amsterdam Gold is better for people who want to feel relaxed and liberated while Berlin XXX is best for those who are looking for an intense sexual experience. Potent Blue is considered one of the most effective of all types of poppers.

The Effects of Poppers

One reason that poppers are so popular is that they create an almost instant high that leaves the user feeling warm and euphoric. They may also feel dizzy as if they are extremely drunk. However, unlike other drugs, which have effects that can last hours, the intoxication from poppers only lasts for a few seconds to minutes.

The drugs in poppers works because they are vasodilators. Dilated blood vessels cause a rapid drop in blood pressure that leads to the lightheaded feeling people get when using poppers. For some, the result is even a loss of muscle strength or a brief loss of consciousness. At the same time that the blood pressure is dropping, though, the drug is also causing tachycardia, which means the heart rate is speeding up.

The Reason People Find Poppers Appealing

Beyond the initially euphoric effects of poppers, there are other reasons they’re becoming so popular even for people who don’t normally do drugs. It’s the “naughty” factor. When something is semi-legal but still generally frowned upon, it doesn’t seem as bad as doing something like an illegal drug. Even so, it gives you that little rush of doing something “bad.” It’s a way to act out without worrying about legal ramifications.

Negative Side Effects of Using Poppers

Poppers cause quite a few negative side effects, especially in people who use them often. One of the most common is lesions around the nose or lips due to the inhalation of the drug. Sometimes, doctors who don’t realize their patients use poppers misdiagnose these lesions as seborrheic dermatitis of impetigo.

Other side effects of using poppers include hot rushes, rashes, sinus pain, blurry vision, and allergic reactions that cause breathing difficulties, especially in scented poppers. Mild to severe headaches are also common. In some cases, overuse of these recreational drugs may lead to seizures or coma.

There are other risks associated with using poppers as well. In addition to the possibility of chemical burns if you hold the popper too close, you also risk one exploding in your face if you hold them near fire or high heat. This is because they are extremely flammable.

Using poppers with alcohol or other drugs can seriously increase the risk of side effects. It could lead to impaired decision-making or a lack of oxygen supply to the vital organs when used with alcohol. It can also cause irregular heartbeats or cardiac events when used with stimulants (such as ADHD medications) or methamphetamines.

Some people who use poppers may develop methemoglobinemia. Metheglobinemia is a life-threatening blood disorder that prevents oxygen from being properly delivered to the cells. Symptoms of the disorder include a blue tinge to the skin, an altered mental state, unexplained giddiness, shortness of breath, fatigue, and headaches. Other signs include vomiting or severe ringing in the ears.

Long-term use of poppers can lead to irreversible brain or organ damage, including heart disease and liver failure. In a study about neurotoxicity induced by alkyl nitrites, research was done on rats. The rats that were exposed to the chemicals found in poppers indicated brain damage that included learning impairment and poor memory function. Using poppers can even lead to permanent hearing loss or damage your body’s bone marrow.

If you are someone who has blood pressure that is already low, if you have heart trouble, or if you have had a stroke, do not use poppers, as the negative side effects are much more likely to cause damage to your body. Finally, all nitrites are possible carcinogens. One popular one, isobutyl nitrite is a known carcinogen. Carcinogens can cause cancer and long-term or frequent use of poppers may heighten the risk.

The Legalities of Poppers

Are poppers legal? Yes and no. It is illegal to sell poppers for human consumption, but not illegal to sell the ingredients in them as another type of product. For this reason, the online shops, adult shops, and convenience stores that offer them around the world sell them under the guise of being room deodorizers, leather cleaning products, cosmetics, or fragrances. This means that you can legally buy them as long as you keep mum about their real use. Simply put, buying poppers is a big secret that everybody knows about and everybody knows not to talk about.

How To Use Poppers Safely

While the best idea is not to use poppers at all, the reality is that many people will want to try them or continue to use them even after learning of the dangers. For this reason, it’s important to know how to lessen the risk of a bad experience or overdose when using poppers.

Start by assessing whether you are on any medications (or taking any other recreational drugs) that could affect how you experience a popper high. If you take medication for ADHD symptoms, it can cause a more irregular heartbeat than if you were to use poppers alone. If you take erectile dysfunction medication, it may cause blood pressure low enough to make you faint.

Next, think about who you’ll be with and where you’ll be. The best idea is to surround yourself with people who you know will have your best interest in mind if something goes wrong. If you’ll be in a large crowd, make plans with your friends to determine how you’ll find each other if you become separated. If you’ll be in an intimate situation, be sure of the ability of both you and your partner to give or revoke consent at any time.

Finally, make sure that you stay hydrated, especially if you’ll be using the poppers while you’re out dancing or at a festival. Bring plenty of water or hydration packets with you and be sure to take breaks and rest your body throughout the night.

Poppers and Addiction

To date, there is no evidence that shows poppers can create physical or psychological addiction. However, using them regularly often causes a person to build a tolerance for them. To get the same effects they’re used to, they need to use more and more.

While fatal overdoses of amyl nitrite are rare, overuse can cause low blood pressure, cardiovascular problems, or unconsciousness. Moreover, poppers are more likely to cause serious side effects or lead to death when used in combination with prescription erectile dysfunction medication.

It is also of note that even though deaths are still considered rare, healthcare providers are reporting an increase in hospitalizations and fatalities related to the inhalation of poppers and other nitrite products.

Symptoms of Overdosing on Poppers

Although overdoses, especially fatal ones, are rare, it is still a good idea to know the signs that you or someone else is experiencing an overdose when huffing poppers. While dizziness is common when huffing poppers, if it is extreme and lasts longer than it should, it could be a symptom of an overdose. You may also feel unusually weak or tired, have a weak but fast heartbeat, faint, or have blue fingernails, lips, or palms of the hands. If you or anyone else is experiencing these symptoms, it is an urgent situation that requires medical attention. Call 911 or get to an emergency room right away.

Withdrawal Symptoms of Poppers

Many people never experience withdrawal symptoms when they decide to stop using poppers. However, those who use them extremely frequently or who have used them for a very long time may experience some withdrawal symptoms. These include nausea and vomiting, tremors in the body, and irritability. Problems sleeping and mood swings are also common as your body gets used to not having the poppers in your system.

Getting Help For Quitting Poppers

Despite the lack of evidence that poppers are psychologically addicting, some users would disagree. People who use poppers, especially in combination with other drugs, are dealing with dangerous substances and sometimes need extra help to quit using them. If you believe you have a problem with using poppers, you can talk to your doctor who can refer you to a mental health professional or you can contact an addiction program to see if they can help.

Keep in mind that there are no medications that treat people who are abusing inhalants. Instead, the best course of treatment is often in the form of support groups and individual therapy sessions that help you to get to the root of why you use poppers and what healthier activities you can participate in instead.

Start the Recovery Process Today

Are you interested in learning more about stopping the use of poppers or about addiction recovery in general? We can help. The team at Clean Recovery Centers is compassionate, professional, and knowledgeable about addiction recovery and how individualized each experience is. Contact us to learn more about our programs and how we can help you get back on the right path.

Sources:

  • https://www.verywellmind.com/what-are-poppers-22094
  • https://www.samhsa.gov/data/release/2017-national-survey-drug-use-and-health-nsduh-releases
  • https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/nitrite-poppers
  • https://theface.com/life/everything-you-need-to-know-about-poppers-drugs-coke-nightlife-partying-lgbtq-sex-shops-safety
  • https://www.folxhealth.com/library/the-folx-guide-to-poppers-amyl-nitrate
  • https://ro.co/health-guide/what-are-poppers/
  • https://www.rehabguide.co.uk/what-are-poppers/
  • https://healthyliferecovery.com/what-are-poppers/
  • https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26971703/
  • https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5414542/
  • https://www.aromaromauk.co.uk/your-guide-to-poppers-2019-what-are-poppers-and-how-do-you-use-them/

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