What are poppers?

Poppers, or amyl nitrite, are a liquid chemical that produces vapors. When those vapors are inhaled, poppers provide a sense of euphoria and increased sexual pleasure for just a few minutes at a time. Poppers, which are mainly used as a party drug, are unsafe and cause complex side effects that are harmful to your health. This is especially true when used in large quantities or for long periods of time.

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LGBTQ+ health specialist Henry Ng, MDshares why poppers have become increasingly popular and controversial over the past decade, along with some 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. Because 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 medical treatment for angina pectoris (chestpain). But by the 1970s, poppers had become a popular club drug, particularly in relation to gay nightlife and the LGBTQ community. This is largely due to its role in relaxing soft muscle tissue, particularly the anal sphincter, and its ability to increase pleasure and reduce pain for anyone engaged in anal sex

Today, poppers come in small plastic bottles and are sold commercially online and in stores. While they are not illegal to buy or sell in the United States, they are illegal for human consumption and the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate the drug. Poppers are often marketed as room deodorants, leather cleaners, VHS cleaners, or nail polish removers.

Legality outside the United States varies. In 2013, Canada banned poppers due to adverse side effects. In 2018, the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration proposed a ban on poppers, but eventually reversed that decision in an effort to regulate amyl nitrite as a prescription-only drug. This turnaround came because of protests from the LGBTQ community who cited such bans as discriminatory and homophobic.

“Poppers are a product that has been used to enhance sexual experience and function” for quite some timesays Dr Ng. “But there are concerns that using poppers for sexual pleasure may have negative side effects that people have not talked about or may not be aware of.”

Are poppers dangerous to your health?

Yes, poppers are dangerous and should never be inhaled. Inhaling the vapors of poppers can cause serious side effects, some of which can be fatal.

Lowers your blood pressure

When using poppers, you often experience a headache, warm sensations throughout your body, an increased heart rate, dizziness, and light-headedness. These sensations can last from 30 seconds to a few minutes at a time and are caused by a sudden drop in blood pressure. In some cases, people who use poppers complain of headaches due to the widening of the blood vessels in their brains. If your blood pressure drops too low, you risk passing out or losing consciousness.

Causes irregular heart disease that can be fatal

Your heart can also overload itself. In an effort to get oxygenated blood to other parts of your body, you may experience: tachycardiaif your heart beats more than 100 times a minute. If you develop chest pain or feel dizzy, go to the emergency room immediately.

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

Has side effects with drugs

Poppers may also have negative interactions when used with other drugs related to blood pressure, heart failure, and erectile dysfunction. Medications such as 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 worrisome, as research suggests that there is an ongoing increase in chemsexor the recreational use of poppers and other drugs to enhance sexual pleasure.

“With chemsex, one of the concerns we have is that you’re less inhibited, and if you’re less inhibited, you’re less likely to use condoms and you’re more likely to be exposed to HIV and other STDs”, notes Dr. Ng on.

Causes cellular changes that lead to chronic diseases

Spilling amyl nitrite on your skin can cause severe chemical burns. The vapors of poppers can also cause cellular changes that lead to complex, chronic conditions. In some cases you may experience maculopathy, or loss of vision, due to damage to the retina. This loss of vision can be permanent. You can also develop methemoglobinemia† This blood disorder occurs when your blood cells lose their ability to carry oxygen around your body.

“Even if there is a normal amount of oxygen that is breathed in by the lungs, the red blood cells can’t actually carry the oxygen because the normal hemoglobin in the red blood cell has changed and cannot carry oxygen correctly,” explains Dr. Ng out. “As a result, people can develop symptoms such as 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?

The use of a drug always carries a certain risk. It is never recommended to use inhalants such as poppers. If you do, you can minimize the risks associated with them by avoiding skin contact, not mixing them with erectile dysfunction medications, and discussing safe sex practices with your partners beforehand.

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


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