Updated on April 3, 2024
6 min read

How Dangerous Is the Recreational Use of Poppers?

Key Takeaways

Poppers are substances that have gained popularity as recreational drugs and sexual enhancers. They typically come in small bottles and contain the liquid amyl nitrite, which produces a quick high upon inhalation.

Vendors often market this substance as room odorizers or leather cleaners to bypass drug laws. However, despite their accessibility, nitrite poppers can be dangerous and addictive. 

How Addictive are Poppers?

Nitrite poppers produce a quick high that lasts only a few minutes, leading some to inhale it repeatedly to maintain the sensation. Chronic use of nitrite poppers can lead to tolerance and dependence, making the risk of addiction highly likely.

Are Poppers Legal?

Poppers exist in a legal gray area. Manufacturers once sold them over the counter but faced legal restrictions starting in the late 1970s. 

Since then, they’ve started selling poppers made of different chemicals to avoid these restrictions. Many people buy them for recreational use, although makers sell them in small bottles as differently named products.

Poppers are commonly sold as products like:

  • Room deodorizers
  • Leather cleaners
  • Video head cleaners
  • Air fresheners
  • Nail polish removers
  • Liquid aroma
  • Liquid incense
  • Cosmetics
  • Industrial solvents
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Why Do People Misuse Poppers?

People commonly abuse poppers to get a quick and intense high. They’re also after the substance’s ability to enhance sexual experiences.

The rush of blood to the head from inhaling poppers can bring a brief feeling of euphoria and relaxation. Those trying to escape everyday stressors or enhance pleasurable activities often seek this sensation.

Additionally, poppers have gained a reputation as a “party drug” due to their use in social settings. The perception that it’s a relatively harmless substance has also contributed to its widespread recreational use.

Poppers as a Sexual Stimulant

Using poppers as sexual enhancers relaxes the smooth muscles of the vagina and anus, making sex less painful and more enjoyable. As vasodilators, they also help some men achieve stronger erections.

From the 1960s onwards, poppers became established as a recreational drug. They have become popular among the LGBTQ community for their muscle-relaxing effects and mood-enhancing properties.

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What are the Signs of Popper Addiction?

While poppers may seem like a harmless party drug, excessive and frequent use can lead to addiction. Some common signs of popper abuse and addiction include:

  • Increased dosage and frequency of use
  • Tolerance
  • Using poppers despite negative consequences
  • Difficulty controlling or stopping use
  • Neglecting responsibilities and obligations to use poppers

Those who abuse this drug may also experience physical symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, and shortness of breath.

What are Popper Addiction Treatment Options?

There’s no singular treatment for popper addiction. Effective treatment usually involves a combination of therapy, peer support groups, and medication.

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): It can help recognize and change negative thought patterns and behaviors that contribute to drug use. Motivational enhancement therapy can also help address ambivalence towards quitting.
  • Support groups: Sharing experiences with others who have gone through similar struggles can be beneficial.
  • Medication-assisted treatment (MAT): In some cases, medication such as antidepressants or benzodiazepines can help manage cravings.

Resources for Help and Support

If you or someone you know is struggling with popper addiction, there are resources available to help. Consider reaching out to:

  • National Helpline: 1-800-237-TALK (8255)
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): Treatment locator
  • National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Helpline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Helpline: 1-800-950-NAMI (6264)
  • Your primary care provider or a mental health professional: Consult them for personalized guidance and treatment options

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How Can You Prevent Popper Addiction?

To help prevent poppers abuse, it’s essential to follow these steps:

  • Avoid drug use: Avoid using drugs, including poppers, and limit exposure to those who abuse it.
  • Educate yourself and others: Share information about the dangers of popper use, its potential for addiction, and ways to seek help with friends and family members.
  • Seek alternative forms of recreation: Find alternative activities that are enjoyable and don’t involve drug use.
  • Seek help for mental health conditions: Don’t self-medicate and seek proper treatment and support.

Is It Safe to Use Poppers?

It’s not safe to use poppers. Although stores openly sell them, they come with serious risks, some of which can be fatal.

In 2021, the FDA warned against its purchase or use. The agency reported more deaths and hospitalizations due to poppers’ adverse health effects. Some people also accidentally mistake them for energy drinks.1,2

What are the Risks of Popper Use and Addiction?

These are the dangers of popper addiction or use: 

1. Skin Damage

Poppers are highly flammable and can cause chemical burns upon ingestion or exposure to body tissues. This can cause rashes, wounds, or crusty lesions, typically around the nose, lips, and other areas exposed to vapors.

2. Drop in Blood Pressure

People with blood pressure problems or who are on medication should avoid poppers. Inhaling poppers can dilate blood vessels, which can cause blood pressure to drop. 

If the blood pressure drops too low, it can lead to headaches. You can also experience extreme lightheadedness, fainting, or loss of consciousness.

3. Abnormal Heart Rhythms

Inhaling poppers can cause recurring irregular heart rhythms (arrhythmia), leading to “sudden sniffing death syndrome.” It can lead to:

  • Choking
  • Asphyxiation
  • Seizures
  • Coma
  • Death

4. Low Oxygen Levels

Ingesting or inhaling large amounts of poppers can lead to the rare blood disorder ‘methemoglobinemia.’ It’s a condition that occurs when red blood cells lose their ability to carry and deliver oxygen. 

Methemoglobinemia can affect the oxygen supply throughout the body and cause these symptoms:

  • Lightheadedness
  • Headaches
  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Death (in severe cases)

5. Eye Problems

Some reports connect inhaling poppers, particularly isopropyl nitrite, with these temporary and permanent eye problems:

  • Loss of vision
  • Photosensitivity
  • Blind spots
  • Increased intraocular pressure
  • Retinal damage

6. Risky Sexual Behavior and Related Complications

Poppers can lower inhibitions, causing people to engage in risky sexual activity. This can increase the risk of contracting HIV and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

Other information suggest popper use suppresses natural killer cell function, which can:13

  • Increase vulnerability to infections
  • Cause sustained changes in the immune system
  • Be a potential cofactor of Kaposi sarcoma (cancer due to a virus that can spread through sex)

What are Poppers Drug Interactions?

Understanding the interactions between poppers and other substances is crucial for safety. Poppers’ interactions can cause side effects ranging from dizziness to death.

The substances with dangerous interactions include:

  • Alcohol: Can dangerously lower blood pressure, causing lightheadedness and increasing the chances of accidents and health problems
  • Erectile dysfunction medication: Can cause serious blood pressure problems and lead to stroke, heart attack, or even death

Summary 

Poppers are recreational substances that can produce intense but short euphoric effects. While some use them for their mind-numbing and sexual-enhancing properties, their use comes with potential dangers.

Using poppers can lead to addiction and adversely affect your overall health. The best recommendation is to avoid poppers and prioritize your well-being. If you or someone you know struggles with substance abuse or addiction, seek professional help and support.

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Updated on April 3, 2024
12 sources cited
Updated on April 3, 2024
  1. Guarnotta, E. “Poppers: What Are They, and Are They Dangerous?” GoodRx Health, 2023.
  2. FDA Advises Consumers Not to Purchase or Use Nitrite “Poppers.” U.S. Food & Drug Administration, 2021. 
  3. Ingesting or Inhaling Nitrite “Poppers” Can Cause Severe Injury or Death.” U.S. Food & Drug Administration, 2021. 
  4. Johnson-Arbor, K. “Dangers of Poppers.” Poison Control.
  5. Brazil, R. “What are poppers and are they legal?” ChemistryWorld, 2021.
  6. Inhalants Research Report.” National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), 2012. 
  7. What are the other medical consequences of inhalant abuse?” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2020. 
  8. Tello et al. “Poppers-Induced Methemoglobinemia: A Curious Case of the Blues.” Cureus, 2021.
  9. Wilkerson, R. “Getting the blues at a rock concert: a case of severe methaemoglobinaemia.” Emerg Med Australas, 2010.
  10. Lefevre et al. “Poppers-induced Life-Threatening Methemoglobinemia.” Images in Pulmonary, Critical Care, Sleep Medicine and the Sciences, 2018.
  11. Rewbury et al. “Poppers: legal highs with questionable contents? A case series of poppers maculopathy.” British Journal of Ophthalmology, 2017.
  12. Dutta et al. “Long-term nitrite inhalant exposure and cancer risk in MSM.” AIDS, 2017.

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