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What Are Poppers?

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on May 19, 2022

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. People inhale the strong-smelling, colorless liquid, often to enhance their senses during sex.

Poppers aren’t addictive, but they’re unsafe. They can lead to serious health problems or death.

People who use them recreationally buy them in small bottles. They're called “poppers” because once the capsule or bottle is popped open, the liquid turns into a gas that you inhale.

You may also hear poppers called:

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

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

Is It Illegal to Do Poppers?

The sale and use of nitrites for nonmedical purposes is illegal. So some stores and online vendors sell them under false, often sexualized names like "Fist" or "Rock Hard."

They may be labeled as “video head cleaner,” “leather cleaner,” “polish remover,” or “room deodorizer.”

What Are Popper Drugs Used For?

Nitrites include amyl nitrate, butyl 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 calm, 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.

What Are the Effects of Poppers?

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

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

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

These aren't usually dangerous. But you could notice a skin rash, unusual sleepiness, or weakness. See your doctor as soon as possible if you get these symptoms.

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

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.

Risks of Poppers

The FDA doesn't regulate illegal poppers, 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.

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.
  • Since 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 disease such as HIV).
  • If you have a suppressed immune system, heart problems, low or high blood pressure, a history of cerebral hemorrhaging, are pregnant, or have anemia, poppers could lead to further health issues.
  • Never use poppers along with medications for erection problems like sildenafil (Viagra, Revatio), tadalafil (Adcirca, Cialis), or vardenafil (Levitra, Staxyn). This combination could be fatal.
  • Using poppers with other illicit drugs like cocaine could heighten the risks.
  • Poppers affect your judgment, so you're more likely to do unsafe things while you're on them.

If you or someone you're with is having bad effects from poppers or prescription amyl nitrite, call 911 or Poison Control right away.

Poppers aren't addictive. But if you use them repeatedly, you may need to increase your dose to have the same effect. Doctors are seeing more hospitalizations and deaths from people using them from 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.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

FDA: “Nitrite “Poppers.”

Tweaker: “Poppers.”

Dance Safe: “Poppers.”

National Institute on Drug Abuse: “What Are the Common Street Names for Inhalants?”

National Library of Medicine: “Amyl nitrate.”

Mayo Clinic: “Amyl Nitrite (Inhalation Route).”

Release: “Alkyl Nitrites ('poppers').”

Alcohol and Drug Foundation: “Amyl nitrite.”

Public Health Seattle and King County: “Update on Poppers.”

Cleveland Clinic: "Inhalant Abuse."

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