July 7, 2022

What Are Poppers?

A dangerous party drug, poppers pose serious health threats

Two people wrapped up in a rainbow flag

Poppers, or amyl nitrite, are a liquid chemical substance that produce vapors. When those vapors are inhaled, poppers provide a sense of euphoria and heightened sexual pleasure up to just a couple of minutes at a time. Used mostly as a party drug, poppers are unsafe and cause complex side effects that are harmful to your health. This is especially true when used in excessive amounts or for long periods of time.

Advertisement

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

LGBTQ+ health specialist Henry Ng, MD, shares why poppers have become increasingly popular and controversial over the last decade, along with some of the dangers and risks.

What are poppers?

Poppers belong to a class of drugs called alkyl nitrites. Alkyl nitrites are vasodilators that cause your blood vessels to widen and your blood flow to increase. As your heart doesn’t have to work as hard, the increase in blood flow causes your blood pressure to drop. The widening of your blood vessels also causes smooth muscle tissue throughout your body to relax.

Vasodilators were first used in 1867 by Thomas Lauder Brunton as a medical treatment for angina pectoris (chest pain). But by the 1970s, poppers had become a popular club drug, most notably in relation to gay nightlife and the LGBTQ community. This is largely due to its role in relaxing soft muscle tissue, specifically the anal sphincter, and its ability to enhance pleasure and reduce pain for anyone engaging in .

Today, poppers come in small plastic bottles and are commercially sold online and in retail shops. While not illegal to buy or sell in the United States, they’re illegal for human consumption and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t regulate the drug. Poppers are often marketed as room deodorizers, leather cleaners, VHS cleaners or nail polish removers.

Legality outside of the United States varies. In 2013, Canada banned poppers, citing adverse side effects. In 2018, Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration proposed a ban on poppers but ultimately reversed that decision in an effort to regulate amyl nitrite as a prescription-only medication. This reversal occurred because of protests from the LGBTQ community citing such bans as discriminatory and homophobic.

“Poppers are a product that’s been used to enhance sexual experience and function for quite some time,” says Dr. Ng. “But there are concerns that the use of poppers for sexual pleasure can have negative side effects that people haven’t been talking about or might not be aware of.”

Advertisement

Are poppers dangerous for your health?

Yes, poppers are dangerous and should never be inhaled. Inhaling the fumes from poppers can cause severe side effects, some of which may be fatal.

Lowers your blood pressure

When using poppers, you’ll often experience a head rush, warm sensations throughout your body, an increased heart rate, dizziness and lightheadedness. These sensations can last from 30 seconds up to a couple of minutes at a time and are caused by a sudden drop in blood pressure. In some cases, people who use poppers complain of headaches as a result of the blood vessels in their brain widening. If your blood pressure drops too low, you run the risk of fainting or losing consciousness.

Causes irregular heart conditions that can be fatal

Your heart may also overwork itself. In an effort to get oxygen-rich blood to other areas in your body, you could experience tachycardia, when your heart beats more than 100 times per minute. If you experience chest pain or feel dizzy, you should go to an emergency room immediately.

Inhaling vapors can cause several irregular heart rhythms that can result in sudden sniffing death syndrome, where your heart no longer functions properly. This can even happen for first-timers.

Has adverse effects with medications

Poppers can also have negative interactions when used with other drugs associated with blood pressure, heart failure and erectile dysfunction. Medications like sildenafil (Viagra®) or tadalafil (Cialis®) also lower your blood pressure. When used together, this combination can lead to stroke, heart attack or death. This is especially concerning, as research suggests there’s been an ongoing increase in chemsex, or the recreational use of poppers and other drugs to enhance sexual pleasure.

“With chemsex, one of the concerns that we have is that you’re less inhibited, and when you’re less inhibited, you can be less likely to use condoms and have a higher chance of exposure to HIV and other STIs,” notes Dr. Ng.

Advertisement

Causes cellular changes that lead to chronic conditions

If you spill amyl nitrite on your skin, it can cause severe chemical burns. The vapors from poppers can also cause cellular changes that lead to complex, chronic conditions. In some cases, you can experience maculopathy, or loss of vision, as a result of retinal damage. This loss of vision can be permanent. You can also develop methemoglobinemia. This blood disorder happens when your blood cells lose their ability to carry oxygen through your body.

“Even if there’s a normal amount of oxygen that’s breathed in by the lungs, the red blood cells actually can’t carry the oxygen because the normal hemoglobin in the red blood cell is altered and cannot carry oxygen correctly,” explains Dr. Ng. “As a result, people can develop symptoms like headache, dizziness, fatigue, shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, rapid heartbeat, loss of muscle coordination and blue colored skin.”

Can you use poppers in a healthy way?

Use of any drug always carries some risk. It’s never advised to use inhalants like poppers. If you do, you can minimize the risks associated with them by avoiding skin contact, avoiding mixing them with erectile dysfunction medications and discussing safe-sex practices with your partners ahead of time.

“Using poppers can be potentially dangerous,” warns Dr. Ng. “It can affect cardiovascular function, eye function and increase exposure to STIs.

Related Articles

Male and female in embrace in foreground with contraception choices circling in background
February 2, 2024
What You Should Know About Safe Sex Practices

‘Safer sex’ means STI prevention, avoiding unintended pregnancies and psychologically safe practices for everyone

doctor talking to pregnant couple outside office
October 15, 2023
Understanding the Risks of STIs While Pregnant

If left untreated, you risk complications, early labor and passing the infection to your baby

Physician discussing health issues with patient during appointment.
July 17, 2023
What Your Penis Says About Your Health

Changes in penis performance or appearance may signal heart issues, diabetes and more

person in bed holding head with headache
April 6, 2023
Can an Orgasm Cause a Headache?

Yes, especially if you get migraines — but medicine can help

Small jar of olive oil on a rustic wooden table.
March 27, 2023
Lubricant Alternatives: What To Use and What To Avoid

Stay away from hand lotion and honey, but coconut oil can do the trick

Person sitting on couch in living room with ice pack on groin.
January 24, 2023
What To Do During a Genital Herpes Outbreak

Warm baths, OTC painkillers and cotton underwear can help lessen pain and discomfort

Woman sitting on bed thinking deeply whle partner sleeps behind her.
January 23, 2023
For Women Who Can’t Orgasm: You’re Not Alone (and There Is Hope)

Medications and devices can help you get the satisfaction you deserve

Healthcare provider looking at records while magnifying glass highlights germs in background, with pills in foreground.
November 28, 2022
Are STIs and STDs the Same Thing?

The difference is in the stigma

Trending Topics

glass of cherry juice with cherries on table
Sleepy Girl Mocktail: What’s in It and Does It Really Make You Sleep Better?

This social media sleep hack with tart cherry juice and magnesium could be worth a try

Exercise and diet over three months is hard to accomplish.
Everything You Need To Know About the 75 Hard Challenge

Following five critical rules daily for 75 days may not be sustainable

Person in foreground standing in front of many presents with person in background holding gift bags.
What Is Love Bombing?

This form of psychological and emotional abuse is often disguised as excessive flattery

Ad