Poppers: Side Effects and Dangers of Amyl Nitrate

Medically Reviewed by Zilpah Sheikh, MD on September 27, 2023
10 min read

Poppers are a group of chemicals that people breathe in (inhale) to get high. These "party drugs" are typically made with amyl nitrite or a similar substance. People sniff nitrite vapors to get a fast feeling of euphoria or muscle relaxation, often during sex.

Nitrites are a type of chemical that doctors sometimes use to treat heart conditions or chest pain. "Poppers" is a slang term for this type of chemical when it's used recreationally.

Poppers aren't addictive, but they can lead to serious health problems or death.

Poppers are among several forms of recreational inhalants (drugs you breathe in). Others include nitrous oxide ("laughing gas"), "whippets," a type of nitrous oxide used as a propellant in whipped cream dispensers, and solvents like glue.

What do poppers look like?

They usually come in tiny glass or plastic bottles similar in size to popular energy drink shots. The liquid inside may be clear, gold, or yellowish.

What do poppers smell and taste like?

Some people say the strong-smelling odor is fruity, sickly sweet, or like dirty socks. Never put poppers in your mouth to taste or drink the liquid. The chemicals are poisonous.

Nitrites were first sold in tiny glass vials that people would squeeze until they "popped." This would release the nitrate vapors into the air so people could inhale the fumes. That's where the term "poppers" comes from.

Poppers often come with screw-top bottles now, but people still use the drugs by inhaling the nitrite gas through their nose or mouth.

People who use poppers may:

  • Sniff the fumes straight from the bottle.
  • Breathe in the gasses from a soaked cloth.
  • Dip an unlit cigarette in the popper liquid and sniff that.

Never light a cigarette coated in nitrites. Poppers are flammable, and you could burn yourself if the chemical catches fire.

You can legally buy or sell nitrites in the U.S., but it's illegal for you to consume them or misuse them as a recreational drug. The FDA does not regulate poppers, but it warns against buying or using these products for fun.

You may get into legal trouble if you knowingly sell or supply poppers to people for recreational use, especially if they're younger than 18 years. The offense depends on which state you live in, but you could go to jail and/or have to pay a fine if you're found guilty of encouraging inhalant use.

The chemicals found in poppers belong to a class of drugs called alkyl nitrites. This includes amyl nitrate, butyl nitrite, isobutyl nitrite, isopropyl nitrite, and cyclohexyl nitrite.

In the medical world, amyl nitrite is a vasodilator (a drug that opens your blood vessels). It lowers your blood pressure and raises your heart rate.

Doctors may prescribe it to relieve angina (chest pain, tightness, or squeezing). To use this medication, you crush a cloth-covered glass capsule between your thumb and finger, wave it back and forth near your nose, and inhale the vapor one to six times. You may faint or feel dizzy afterward.

In recreational use, people do poppers to feel a rush of euphoria or excitement, boost their skin's sensations, and relax their muscles. The drugs work very quickly. They dilate your blood vessels, sending blood to your brain and boosting your heart rate.

Where are poppers found?

Often, you'll find them in places like gas stations, sex shops, smoke shops, bars, night clubs, or adult novelty stores. But many online and in-person stores sell poppers.

While it's not illegal to sell the chemicals in poppers, the products are usually marketed as something else other than recreational drugs.

Poppers may be sold as:

  • Video head cleaner
  • Liquid incense or aroma
  • Air fresheners or deodorizer
  • Leather cleaner
  • Makeup
  • Solvents or cleaning products
  • Nail polish removers

You may also hear poppers called:

  • Rush
  • Bold
  • Jungle juice
  • Liquid gold
  • Purple haze
  • Buzz
  • Snappers

Poppers and the LGBTQ community

Poppers have been a popular party drug in the gay and queer community dating back to the 1970s. The drugs not only give you a brief high feeling but also can relax the muscles in your anus and vagina, which can make penetrative sex more comfortable and pleasurable.

The LGBTQ community pushed back when Australia's Therapeutic Goods Administration proposed a ban on poppers. They felt that the law unfairly targeted gay men. That's because men who have sex with other men often use these drugs to make receiving anal sex (bottoming) less painful.

Because of the protests, the Australian government reversed its decision to ban amyl nitrite except as a prescription medication.

But in 2013, Canada successfully banned the sale of poppers for recreational use. Some see this decision as discriminatory toward gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men.

What is chemsex?

This is a term that refers to using drugs to enhance your sex life. This practice is common among gay men or other people who have anal sex. Besides poppers, drugs commonly used during sex include methamphetamine (crystal meth), mephedrone (meth), GBH, and GBL (G).

These effects create a "rush" feeling that can also make you dizzy or lightheaded. You may feel like you're very drunk. The high lasts only a few seconds or minutes.

Because poppers also relax the muscles in your vagina and anus, some people use them during sex.

The "high" symptoms of poppers may include:

  • Feelings of happiness
  • Increased sex drive
  • Visual changes
  • Lower inhibitions
  • Impaired judgment

In addition to a high, the drug can cause side effects such as:

  • Fast pulse
  • Flushing of your face and neck
  • Headache
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Restlessness
  • Eye problems like light sensitivity and blind spots

You could notice a skin rash, unusual sleepiness, or weakness. These symptoms aren't usually dangerous, but see your doctor as soon as possible if you get any of them after using poppers.

If you get the liquid from poppers on your skin, it can cause a chemical irritation or burn you. If this happens, use a soothing cream or vitamin B12 liquid to relieve pain.

Set and setting

Poppers or other drugs that affect your mind may affect you differently depending on how you feel when you take them or who and what you're around. This concept is called "set and setting."

Here's a breakdown of what those terms mean:

  • Set. This refers to your state of mind, mood, and what you expect to happen when you take poppers. Your experience may also be different depending on whether you've taken these kinds of drugs before.
  • Setting. Drugs may affect you differently depending on the people around you or where you take drugs. For example, is the setting loud or quiet? Are you somewhere familiar or new to you? Are you around friends or strangers?

Poppers dosage

These drugs aren't regulated by the FDA, so there's no safe dose to recommend. But many people get unwanted side effects (like a headache) after two to four sniffs.

How long does it take poppers to kick in?

The effects usually set in right away, typically within seconds.

How long do poppers last?

Poppers are short-lived and typically last only a few minutes. But how long they'll affect you may depend on several things, including your body size, exactly what's in the drug, and whether you've used poppers before.

Long-term effects

Most people who use poppers regularly don't have permanent or severe health problems. But it's possible to experience unwanted or harmful side effects if you inhale nitrites a lot. Some symptoms are mild, while others are more serious.

Frequent use of poppers may cause:

  • A rash around your eyes, mouth, or nose
  • Burns or other skin irritation
  • Loss of vision from contact with the vapors (maculopathy)
  • Bronchitis
  • Brain damage
  • Weakened immune system
  • Increased risk of certain kinds of cancer

In some people, poppers can cause a life-threatening blood disorder. It's called methemoglobinemia, and it makes it harder for your red blood cells to carry oxygen throughout your body.

The FDA doesn't regulate poppers for recreational use, so you can never be sure what's in them. It's best to use nitrite drugs only when and as your doctor prescribes them.

If you use nitrite drugs outside of their intended medical use, be aware of these risks:

  • Never swallow or eat the liquid. This can be fatal. It could also lead to blindness, brain damage, and organ failure. If you do ingest the liquid, call 911 or Poison Control right away.
  • Long-term use can harm your nose and lungs. Studies also show that the drug lowers your immune system health after several days of use.
  • Because poppers are highly flammable, keep them away from candles, cigarettes, and lighters.
  • Poppers open your blood vessels. This makes it easier to get an infection (including sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV).
  • If you have a suppressed immune system, heart problems, low or high blood pressure, a history of cerebral hemorrhaging, or anemia, poppers could lead to further health issues.
  • People who are pregnant should not use poppers.
  • Using poppers with other illicit drugs like cocaine could heighten the drug's risks.
  • Poppers affect your judgment, so you're more likely to do unsafe things while you're on them.

Sometimes, inhaling the fumes can cause your heart to stop beating. This is called sudden sniffing death syndrome, and it can happen the first time you use poppers.

Medication interactions

Don't mix poppers with other drugs, including recreational drugs, prescription medication, or the kind you can buy over-the-counter. Polydrug use, or using more than one drug or type of drug at once, can be dangerous and hard to predict.

In particular, never use poppers with:

  • Erectile dysfunction medication: This includes drugs like sildenafil (Revatio, Viagra), tadalafil (Adcirca, Cialis), or vardenafil (Levitra, Staxyn). This combination could cause your blood pressure to fall too fast and lead to stroke, heart attack, or death.

  • Stimulants: Drugs that boost your heart rate, including cocaine or other amphetamine-like stimulants, can make your heart work so hard that it stops. This is called cardiac arrest, and it can be fatal.

Inhaling nitrites can lead to low oxygen levels in your body and irregular heart rhythms. If you or someone you're with is having bad effects from poppers or prescription amyl nitrite, call 911 or Poison Control (1-800-222-1222) right away.

It's possible to overdose on nitrites. Signs of an overdose for this drug include:

  • Extreme dizziness or fainting
  • A bluish color on your lips, fingernails, or palms of your hands
  • A feeling of extreme pressure in your head
  • Abnormal weakness or fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • A weak and fast heartbeat

Other emergency symptoms of using poppers or nitrite drugs include:

  • Choking
  • Seizure
  • Trouble breathing
  • Chest pain
  • Loss of consciousness

Always call for emergency help if you think you or a friend are in danger. Doctors and paramedics work to keep you safe. It's not their job to turn you into the police or talk to other authorities about your drug use.

There isn't a surefire way to use poppers safely. But if you want to lessen the chances of getting harmful effects from them, take the following steps:

  • Alternate between nostrils each time you sniff.
  • Stop using poppers if you get a headache (usually after two to four sniffs).
  • Never drink the liquid.
  • Poppers can catch fire. Keep them away from cigarettes, candles, or flames.
  • Don't mix them with other drugs (like Viagra or other erectile dysfunction drugs) that affect your heart or blood pressure.
  • Store poppers in a tightly sealed bottle in the fridge to avoid spills and evaporation.
  • Let the fumes float toward your nose to avoid burning your skin.

If you plan to use poppers for fun or during sex, talk about consent while you're sober. Make sure you discuss using condoms or other safer sex practices.

You won't become dependent on amyl nitrite or similar substances the more you use them, and you won't have any physical withdrawal symptoms when you stop using these drugs. But the effects of poppers don't last very long, so some people start using them more often to extend the high.

Poppers aren't physically addictive. But if you use them repeatedly, you may feel the need to increase your dose to have the same effect or to perform sexually.

Doctors are seeing more hospitalizations and deaths from people using them for recreational use. If you think you or a loved one may have a problem with inhalant use, contact the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition at 800-269-4237.

There are drug-free ways to relax or improve your sex life. If you're looking for legal and safer alternatives to poppers, why not try the following:

  • Deep-breathing or other relaxation techniques
  • Progressive muscle relaxation
  • Mindfulness meditation
  • Aromatherapy
  • Lubrication with sex
  • More foreplay
  • Communication before, during, and after sex

Fear around intimacy can activate your "fight or flight" response and make your mind and muscles more tense, so be honest if it makes you nervous or you have pain with sex. And be specific about your needs. You should feel safe and comfortable with your partner.

People inhale poppers to feel a euphoric high or to relax during sex. But poppers can also have unwanted side effects, interact badly with other drugs or medications, and cause dangerous changes in blood pressure and heart rate. But if you choose to use poppers, know the symptoms to watch for in case you or a friend need medical attention when you use the drug. Always discuss safer sex practices with your partner before you use poppers.

Here are answers to a few frequently asked questions about poppers:

  • What do poppers actually do?

The active chemical compound in poppers (alkyl nitrites) relaxes your involuntary smooth muscles. When you inhale nitrite vapors, the drug causes the walls of your blood vessels to widen. As a result, your blood pressure drops and your heart rate speeds up.

  • What are the two types of poppers?

Poppers usually refer to amyl nitrites or a class of drugs called alkyl nitrites. This group of chemicals commonly includes amyl nitrite, butyl nitrite, isobutyl nitrite, and isopropyl nitrite.

  • What are poppers in drug slang?

Poppers is the street name for a group of drugs (alkyl nitrites) people inhale to get high or make sex more comfortable.