Updated on February 6, 2024
7 min read

Poppers Addiction: Risks, Dangers, and Effects

Key Takeaways

Poppers are recreational substances that have gained popularity as recreational drugs and sexual enhancers. Although its legality is unclear, it’s crucial to understand its side effects and other dangers associated with its use.

What are Poppers?

Poppers are volatile, alkyl nitrite-based substances commonly used for recreational purposes. Users usually inhale poppers to experience an intense but short-lived euphoric effect.

People can find poppers online and in adult novelty and convenience stores, sold under names such as:1,2,3,4

  • Rush
  • Super Rush
  • Sub-Zero
  • Iron Horse
  • Jungle Juice
  • Locker Room
  • Extreme Formula
  • HardWare
  • Quick Silver
  • Liquid Gold

Poppers were sold in glass vials that had to be broken or “popped” to release the vapor, hence the name “poppers.”4,5

Today, they are packaged in small bottles ranging from 10 to 40 mL in size. Their container makes them similar to energy-shot drinks, which sometimes leads to confusion and accidental poisoning.1,2,3,4

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What Are Poppers For?

When inhaled, poppers quickly enter the bloodstream and release nitric oxide. Nitric oxide causes smooth muscles to relax, resulting in vasodilation (widening of blood vessels).

Poppers can also reach the brain within seconds, producing a rapid but short-lived high characterized by a warm sensation and a head rush.1,5,6,7 Effects vary from person to person. Some people may find the intoxication or euphoria unpleasant and disorientating.

Poppers also cause unwanted effects, some opposite to their supposed benefits. For instance, some men using it may experience difficulty getting an erection.1,2,3,4,5,7

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.1,6,7

From the 1960s onwards, poppers became established as a recreational drug. They have become popular among the LGBTQ community, not only for their muscle-relaxing effects but also for their mood-enhancing properties.1,4,5,6,7

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What Chemicals Are in Poppers?

While sold openly, poppers are not approved for consumption by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Consumer Product Safety Commission.1,2,3,4,6

Poppers contain different types of alkyl nitrite, including:1,4,5,6,7

  • Amyl nitrite: Discovered by Sir Thomas Lauder Brunton in 1867, the first substance known as poppers was used to treat chest pains (angina). In the 1930s, it found another use as an antidote for cyanide poisoning.
  • Isobutyl nitrite: It was used as a substitute formulation due to amyl nitrite’s legal restrictions. However, it has also been linked to cancer and was banned by the European Union in 2007. This led manufacturers to switch to isopropyl nitrite.
  • Isopropyl nitrite: The most commonly found formulation in poppers. It’s known for its strong and long-lasting effects compared to other formulations.
  • Other less common alkyl nitrites (like butyl nitrite and cyclohexyl nitrite)

While poppers can have different chemical compositions, their effects on the brain and body are generally similar.

Side Effects of Poppers

The alkyl nitrate content in poppers can lead to various health complications when ingested. Some common side effects of inhaling or ingesting poppers include:1,2,3,4,5,7

  • Headaches
  • Increased heart rate or fast pulse
  • A sudden drop in blood pressure
  • Fainting or loss of consciousness
  • Respiratory reactions (like sinus problems and wheezing)
  • Skin damage
  • Allergic reactions
  • Eye problems
  • Dizziness
  • Lightheadedness
  • Chest pains
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Nausea
  • Loss of coordination
  • Abnormal heart rhythm
  • Low oxygen levels
  • Nosebleeds
  • Inability to gain an erection

The use of poppers remains in a legal grey area, despite being sold openly. Authorities started introducing legal restrictions, and poppers were no longer available over the counter at pharmacies by the late 1970s.5

However, manufacturers started producing alkyl nitrites (like butyl, isobutyl, and isopropyl nitrites) to circumvent legal restrictions.5 They sold poppers in small bottles, similar to energy shots.1,2,3,4

They also stated poppers as something that's not fit for human consumption, marketing poppers as:1,2,3,4,5,6

  • Room deodorizer
  • Leather cleaner
  • Video head cleaner
  • Air freshener
  • Nail polish remover
  • Liquid aroma
  • Liquid incense
  • Cosmetics
  • Industrial solvent

Some people buy these products for their intended use as deodorizers or leather cleaners. However, purchasing them for their recreational use is more common.4,5,7

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Is It Safe to Use Poppers?

No. Even though stores openly sell poppers, this does not mean these substances are safe to ingest. While poppers may provide a brief high, they have inherent dangers, some of which may be fatal.

Using poppers isn’t known for developing a physical dependency or causing withdrawal symptoms. However, it still has addictive potential and concerning health effects.

In 2021, the FDA warned against the purchase or use of poppers. The agency reported increased deaths and hospitalizations due to popper's adverse health effects and people accidentally mistaking poppers for energy drinks.1,2,3,4,5

Continued use of poppers can lead to the following:

Increased Dosage of Poppers

A popper’s high can occur as soon as 15 seconds and last up to 3 minutes after ingestion. Since it’s a short-lived high, people may take more of the substance to prolong the effects or get the same high. Using poppers this way is dangerous and can lead to loss of consciousness and even death.1

Skin Damage

As highly flammable substances, poppers may cause chemical burns if ingested or exposed to skin or tissues. This can cause rashes, wounds, or crusty lesions, typically around the nose, lips, and other areas exposed to vapors.1,2,3,4

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, extreme lightheadedness, fainting, or loss of consciousness.1,2,3

Interactions with Alcohol

Mixing poppers with alcohol is unsafe and can result in a dangerous decrease in blood pressure. The combination can also increase the risk of alcohol’s effects, such as dizziness and lightheadedness.7

Interactions with Other Sexual Enhancers

As poppers can affect blood pressure, you shouldn’t take them with sildenafil (Viagra), tadalafil (Cialis), or other erectile dysfunction medication. Combining these substances can lead to stroke, heart attack, or death.7

Abnormal Heart Rhythms

Inhaling poppers can cause recurring irregular heart rhythms (arrhythmia), leading to “sudden sniffing death syndrome.” It can lead to:1,6,7,8

  • Choking
  • Asphyxiation
  • Seizures
  • Coma
  • Death

Low Oxygen Levels

Ingesting or inhaling large amounts of poppers can lead to a rare blood disorder called methemoglobinemia. It’s a condition that occurs when red blood cells lose their ability to carry and deliver oxygen. It can affect the oxygen supply throughout the body and cause symptoms like:1,4,5,6,7,9,10,11

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

Eye Problems

Some reports connected inhaling poppers (particularly isopropyl nitrite) with temporary and permanent eye problems. These include:4,5,7,12

  • Loss of vision
  • Light sensitivity
  • Blind spots
  • Pressure in the eyes
  • Retinal damage

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).7,13,14

One study involving HIV-negative MSM (men who have sex with men) linked long-term popper use to a higher risk of sexual promiscuity with several partners. This risky behavior increased the rate of developing cancers related to viruses and STDs.7,15

Other pieces of data also 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 caused by a virus that can be spread through sex)

Summary 

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

Though using poppers isn’t addictive or causes withdrawal symptoms, poppers can adversely affect your cardiovascular system. The best recommendation is to avoid poppers and prioritize your health and well-being.

If you or someone you know struggles with substance abuse or addiction, seek professional help and support. Here are some resources for further information:

Remember, making informed decisions is essential when it comes to the use of recreational drugs. Prioritizing your long-term health and well-being should always be your primary concern.

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Updated on February 6, 2024
15 sources cited
Updated on February 6, 2024
  1. Guarnotta, E., and Bapat, M. “What Are Poppers and Are They Dangerous?” GoodRx Health, 2022.
  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. Cochrane, Z.R. “Is amyl nitrite safe?” MedicalNewsToday, 2020.
  8. What are the other medical consequences of inhalant abuse?” National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), 2011. 
  9. Tello et al. “Poppers-Induced Methemoglobinemia: A Curious Case of the Blues.” Cureus, 2021.
  10. Wilkerson, R.G. “Getting the blues at a rock concert: a case of severe methaemoglobinaemia.” Emerg Med Australas, 2010.
  11. Lefevre et al. “Poppers-induced Life-Threatening Methemoglobinemia.” Images in Pulmonary, Critical Care, Sleep Medicine and the Sciences, 2018.
  12. Rewbury et al. “Poppers: legal highs with questionable contents? A case series of poppers maculopathy.” British Journal of Ophthalmology, 2017.
  13. Wilson, H. “The poppers-HIV connection.” Focus, 1999.
  14. Romanelli et al. “Poppers: epidemiology and clinical management of inhaled nitrite abuse.” Pharmacotherapy, 2004. 
  15. Dutta et al. “Long-term nitrite inhalant exposure and cancer risk in MSM.” AIDS, 2017.

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