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Variety of popper brands

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Poppers is a slang term for various alkyl nitrites inhaled for recreational purposes, particularly amyl nitrite, butyl nitrite, isopropyl nitrite and isobutyl nitrite.[1][2] Amyl nitrite is used medically as an antidote to cyanide poisoning,[3] but the term "poppers" refers specifically to recreational use. Amyl nitrite and several other alkyl nitrites, which are present in products such as air freshener and video head cleaner[citation needed], are often inhaled with the goal of enhancing sexual pleasure.[4] These products have also been part of the club culture from the 1970s disco scene to the 1980s and 1990s rave scene.[5] Poppers have a long history of use due to the rush of warm sensations and dizziness experienced when the vapours are inhaled.

Although, according to at least one analysis, poppers have a lower risk of harm to society and the individual than do certain other recreational drugs,[6] other cases have shown that serious adverse effects can occur. In a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine, an ophthalmologist described four cases in which recreational users of poppers experienced temporary changes in vision.[7] There is some evidence to indicate that even occasional use of poppers may affect vision.[8] With heavy long-term use there is a potential for neurological damage.[9] Accidentally swallowing or aspirating the liquid, rather than inhaling the vapours, is certainly dangerous and can prove fatal.[10][11]


Template:Infobox scientist

Sir Thomas Lauder Brunton (March 14, 1844–September 16, 1916), a Scottish physician, famously pioneered the use of amyl nitrite to treat angina pectoris. Brunton's clinical use of amyl nitrite to treat angina was inspired by earlier work with the same reagent by Arthur Gamgee and Benjamin Ward Richardson. Brunton reasoned that the pain and discomfort of angina could be reduced by administering amyl nitrite to dilate the coronary arteries of patients, thus improving blood flow to the heart muscle.

In addition, the light alkyl nitrites cause the formation of methemoglobin wherein, as an effective antidote to cyanide poisoning, the methemoglobin combines with the cyanide to form nontoxic cyanmethemoglobin.[12] First responders typically carry a cyanide poison kit containing amyl nitrite, such as the popular Taylor Pharmaceutical Cyanide Antidote Kit.[13]

TIME and the Wall Street Journal reported that the popper fad began among homosexual men as a way to enhance sexual pleasure, but "quickly spread to avant-garde heterosexuals" as a result of aggressive marketing. A series of interviews conducted in the late 1970s revealed a wide spectrum of users, including construction workers, a "trendy East Side NYC couple" at a "chic NYC nightclub", a Los Angeles businesswoman "in the middle of a particularly hectic public-relations job" (who confided to the reporter that "I could really use a popper now"), and frenetic disco dancers amid "flashing strobe lights and the pulsating beat of music in discos across the country."[14]

User surveys are hard to come by, but a 1988 study found that 69% of men who had sex with men in the Baltimore/Washington DC area reported they had used poppers, with 21% having done so in the prior year. The survey also found that 11% of recreational drug users in the area reported using poppers, increasing to 22% among "heavy abusers," with an average age of first use of 25.6 years old. Both survey groups used poppers to "get high," but the men that had sex with men were more likely to use them during sex. It was reported that this group reduced usage following the AIDS epidemic, while the drug-users had not.[15] A 1987 study commissioned by the US Senate and conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services found that less than 3% of the overall population had ever used poppers.[16]

Use by minors is historically minimal due, in part, to the ban on sales to minors by major manufacturers for public relations reasons and because some jurisdictions regulate sales to minors by statute.[17] A paper published in 2005 examined use of poppers self-reported by adolescents aged 12–17 in the (American) 2000 and 2001 National Household Surveys on Drug Abuse. In all, 1.5% of the respondents in this age group reported having used poppers. This figure rose to 1.8% in those over 14. Living in nonmetropolitan areas, having used mental health services in the past year (for purposes unconnected with substance use treatment), the presence of delinquent behaviours, past year alcohol and drug abuse and dependence, and multi-drug use were all associated with reporting the use of poppers.[18] In contrast to these low rates, a survey in the North West of England found a rate of 20% self-reported use of poppers among 16-year-olds.[5]

Originally marketed as a prescription drug in 1937, amyl nitrite remained so until 1960, when the Food and Drug Administration removed the prescription requirement due to its safety record. This requirement was reinstated in 1969, after observation of an increase in recreational use.

Other alkyl nitrites were outlawed in the USA by Congress through the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988. The law includes an exception for commercial purposes. The term commercial purpose is defined to mean any use other than for the production of consumer products containing volatile alkyl nitrites meant for inhaling or otherwise introducing volatile alkyl nitrites into the human body for euphoric or physical effects.[19] The law came into effect in 1990. Visits to retail outlets selling these products reveal that some manufacturers have since reformulated their products to abide by the regulations, through the use of the legal cyclohexyl nitrite as the primary ingredient in their products, which are sold as video head cleaners, polish removers, or room odorants.

Amyl nitrite, manufactured by Burroughs Wellcome (now GlaxoSmithKline) and Eli Lilly and Company, was originally sold in small glass ampoules that were crushed to release their vapors, and received the name "poppers" as a result of the popping sound made by crushing the ampule.[20] Today, reformulated poppers containing isobutyl nitrite are sold under brand names such as RUSH,[2][4] Locker Room,[2][4] Snappers,[2][21] and Liquid Gold.[1][2] Many different brands exist and are sold in different localities.


Inhaling nitrites relaxes smooth muscles throughout the body, including the sphincter muscles of the anus and the vagina.[3] It is unclear if there is a direct effect on the brain.[22] Smooth muscle surrounds the body's blood vessels and when relaxed causes these vessels to dilate resulting in an immediate increase in heart rate and blood flow throughout the body, producing a sensation of heat and excitement that usually lasts for a couple of minutes.[23]

Alkyl nitrites are often used as a club drug or to enhance a sexual experience.[4] The head rush, euphoria, and other sensations that result from the increased heart rate are often felt to increase sexual arousal and desire.[4] It is widely reported that poppers can enhance and prolong orgasms.[1]

While anecdotal evidence reveals that both men and women can find the experience of using poppers pleasurable, this experience is not universal;[24] some men report that poppers can cause short-term erectile problems.[1]

Health issues

Acute intake of poppers may cause asphyxia, arrhythmias, cardiovascular depression, carbon monoxide poisoning, hepatorenal toxicity, methemoglobinemia, neurologic dysfunction, mucosal, pulmonary, skin irritation and facial dermatitis. With chronic use neurological damage may occur.[9][25] Swallowing alkyl nitrites can cause serious acute medical complications and may result in death.[10] Accidental aspiration of amyl or butyl nitrites may lead to the development of lipoid pneumonia.[11]

Poppers can interact with other vasodilators, such as sildenafil (Viagra), to cause a serious decrease in blood pressure, leading to fainting, stroke, or even heart attack.[26][27][28]

Poppers can also increase intraocular pressure, resulting in glaucoma.[29][30] In reference to vision loss, a published case concluded "No similar cases have been described in the more than 100-year history of pharmacological use of amyl nitrite for angina pectoris, and pharmacologically it is hard to point out a rationale behind the sequential visual loss."[31][32] In October, 2010, Dr. Michel Paques at the Quinze-Vingts National Hospital in Paris, France reported that at least some people may suffer permanent or temporary eye damage from the use of poppers—even when the poppers are used only once—in a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine.[8] The significance of these isolated observations remains uncertain.

Rarely, the use of poppers can cause methemoglobinemia and hemolysis, especially in individuals predisposed towards such a condition or in overdose. An overdose via ingestion (rather than inhalation) may result in cyanosis, unconsciousness, coma and even death. Methylene blue is a treatment for methemoglobinemia associated with popper use.[3][33][34][35] Other risks include burns if spilled on skin, loss of consciousness, headaches,[1][36] and red or itching rashes around the mouth and nose.

The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy reports that there is little evidence of significant hazard associated with inhalation of alkyl nitrites.[4] A study and ranking of drugs for harmfulness devised by British-government advisers and based upon scientific evidence of harm to both individuals and society showed that poppers pose little potential harm to individuals or to society when compared to other recreational drugs.[6] A 1983 U. S. Consumer Product Safety Commission investigation Briefing Package stated that "Available injury data did not indicate a significant risk of personal injury or illness from room odorizer abuse."[37]

Association with AIDS epidemic

It has been suggested that poppers have been related to AIDS, HIV infection, and the AIDS-related cancer Kaposi's sarcoma.[38] Initially poppers were considered as a hypothesis for the then-burgeoning AIDS epidemic, and the idea has persisted in large part due to the activities of AIDS denialists as a pseudoscientific rationalization for the presence of AIDS in homosexual males.[39] Animal studies have suggested an association between alkyl nitrites and Kaposi's sarcoma, a type of skin cancer associated with HIV-positive individuals,[40][41] though a study of the use of poppers by HIV positive men did not support biological link between the two.[42] Instead it has been suggested the correlation was based on a bias among some popper users towards high-risk sexual behaviours.[43][44] In a 1986–1988 series of study reviews and technical workshops with leading authorities, mandated by the US Congress, it was concluded that nitrites are not a causal factor in AIDS infection or Kaposi's sarcoma.[16] A study that followed 715 gay men for eight and a half years published in the Lancet in 1993 rejected any causal relationship between AIDS and poppers.[45] Although the study did conclude an association between the use of poppers in the gay culture and contracting the HIV virus, it also concluded an association between anal sex and contracting the HIV virus. Citing this link, health authorities in some areas of the United States have mandated point of sale warnings on poppers.[46]

Because of possible alterations to the immune system, it has been suggested that HIV positive individuals may face extra health risks from the use of poppers.[47]


Poppers are a class of chemicals called alkyl nitrites. These are chemical compounds of structure R–ONO. In more formal terms, they are alkyl esters of nitrous acid.

The first few members of the series are volatile liquids; methyl nitrite and ethyl nitrite are gaseous at room temperature and pressure.

Organic nitrites are prepared from alcohols and sodium nitrite in sulfuric acid solution. They decompose slowly on standing, the decomposition products being oxides of nitrogen, water, the alcohol, and polymerization products of the aldehyde.

Physical and Chemical Properties (Sutton, 1963):

Butyl Nitrite Isobutyl nitrite Amyl (Isoamyl Nitrite)
Molecular Weight (g·mol−1) 103.12 103.12 117.15
Physical State Oily Liquid Colorless Liquid Transparent Liquid
Boiling Point (°C) 78.2 67 97–99
Specific Gravity 0.9144 (0/4 °C) 0.8702 (20/20 °C) 0.872


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  23. "?".
  24. E.M. Brecher, while stating that he personally found amyl nitrite sexually unrewarding, quoted a lady friend as follows: "For me, an orgasm is like a hippopotamus. But with amyl nitrite, it is like a whole herd of hippopotami." E. M. Brecher and the Editors of Consumer Reports, Licit and Illicit Drugs (Little) 1972
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  39. "Debunking denialist myths". AIDStruth.org. Retrieved 2010-08-02.
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  41. Dunkel, VC.; Rogers-Back, AM.; Lawlor, TE.; Harbell, JW.; Cameron, TP. (1989). "Mutagenicity of some alkyl nitrites used as recreational drugs". Environ Mol Mutagen. 14 (2): 115–22. doi:10.1002/em.2850140207. PMID 2569972.
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  43. Romanelli, F; Smith, KM; Thornton, AC; Pomeroy, C (2004). "Poppers: epidemiology and clinical management of inhaled nitrite abuse". Pharmacotherapy. 24 (1): 69–78. doi:10.1592/phco. PMID 14740789. Unknown parameter |month= ignored (help)
  44. Beral, V.; Bull, D.; Darby, S.; Weller, I.; Carne, C.; Beecham, M.; Jaffe, H. (1992). "Risk of Kaposi's sarcoma and sexual practices associated with faecal contact in homosexual or bisexual men with AIDS". Lancet. 339 (8794): 632–5. doi:10.1016/0140-6736(92)90793-3. PMID 1347337. Unknown parameter |month= ignored (help)
  45. Schechter, MT.; Craib, KJ.; Gelmon, KA.; Montaner, JS.; Le, TN.; O'Shaughnessy, MV. (1993). "HIV-1 and the aetiology of AIDS". Lancet. 341 (8846): 658–9. doi:10.1016/0140-6736(93)90421-C. PMID 8095571. Unknown parameter |month= ignored (help)
  46. Heredia, Christopher (2001-10-25). "Poppers' link to HIV prompts call for warnings in S.F." San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 2007-06-08.
  47. Gendelman HE (2005). The neurology of AIDS. Oxford [Oxfordshire]: Oxford University Press. pp. 766. ISBN 0-19-852610-5.

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