‘Poppers’ is the street name for a range of chemical compounds belonging to the ‘alkyl nitrite’ family, and are one of the most common recreational drugs.

They are available as a clear or yellow liquid in small bottles and they have a distinctive sickly, sweet odour. It’s important to be really careful if you are using Poppers as it is a flammable liquid and it’s the fumes of this liquid which are inhaled to cause a number of effects.

Why do people use them?

Poppers can be used either on their own or with other drugs to enhance their effects.

They are often favoured by gay and bisexual men to enhance sex as, amongst other things, they relax the anus which can ease discomfort during penetrative intercourse.  Some people can achieve a ‘high’ from using Poppers and can realise a sense of sexual excitement and heightened sensual awareness.

Where are they available?

Poppers are one of the most widely used recreational drugs and are easily available.  They are sold by some corner shops, sex shops, and in some bars and clubs and are often sold under a variety of sexualised brand names, for example ‘Rush’, ‘Locker Room’, ‘Bolt’, ‘Ram’, ‘Liquid Gold’ and so on.

Because they are readily available over the counter, people often think of them as ‘safe’, however this is not necessarily the case.

What are the side effects?

Poppers act as ‘vasodilators’, causing blood vessels to relax and expand, which creates an inflow of extra blood, including a sudden surge of blood to the heart and brain - blood pressure then drops and the heart must beat faster to maintain circulation.

Short-term side effects of this drop in blood pressure are instantaneous and brief, lasting 2 to 5 minutes, although if the dose is repeated, the experience can go on for longer.

Short term effects include:

In this episode of LGF Quickies, we head to Bury and talk about the effect of Poppers. Often known as 'room aromas', this recreational drug is very popular with gay and bisexual men. But what exactly are the effects and dangers?

  • Increased heartbeat,
  • Flushing of the face and chest,
  • Light-headedness, and very occasionally dizziness or fainting,
  • Detachment and disinhibition,
  • Headache sometime after use,
  • Impression of time slowing down,
  • Giddiness.

Long term and dangerous side-effects can include:

  • Extremely high doses can cause the potentially fatal ‘methaemoglobinaemia’ whereby the blood is unable to carry oxygen to cells in the body (similar to what happens during Carbon Monoxide Poisoning).
  • Because Poppers cause blood pressure to drop and heart rate to rise, their use is riskier for people with glaucoma (high blood pressure in the eye) or breathing,heart or blood pressure irregularities.
  • The use of Poppers after taking drugs such as Viagra is dangerous as it can cause blood pressure to drop to dangerous, potentially fatal, levels.
  • A long-term effect in humans has not been demonstrated, but isobutyl nitrite is considered a human carcinogen (potentially causes Cancer).
  • There are a number of reports linking the use of Poppers to eye damage or loss of eye sight ('Poppers Maculopathy').

A bit more about ‘Poppers Maculopathy’

Within the past twelve months, a small group of patients in Leeds, Manchester and North Wales who have used Poppers have experienced fluctuating vision – their sight comes and goes.

Some patients’ vision has recovered to normal when they stop using poppers, and other patients have experienced damaged vision after just one dose.  “Visual problems have been observed with both one-off and chronic use” says Mr Martin McKibbin,Consultant Ophthalmologist in Leeds.

A reason for recent eye problems, where they might not have existed in the past, could be due to a switch from isobutyl nitrite to isopropyl nitrite in Poppers preparations in the UK and France a few years ago.

A piece of well-intentioned legislation (The Dangerous Substances and Preparations (Safety) Regulations 2006) which brought about the switch from isobutyl nitrite to isopropyl nitrite in Poppers may be responsible for the current situation.

“People who have used poppers and have any new visual symptoms should consider consulting an ophthalmologist [a specialist medical doctor devoted to eye and vision disorders] or having a sight test” advises Mr Simon Kelly, Consultant Ophthalmologist at the Royal Bolton Hospital.

“Users should tell their eye doctor that they have been taking Poppers and make a note of the brand that was used. Ophthalmologists need to be aware of this issue.”

Other recent problems…

Recently there have been a number of incidents where patients have been rushed to the A&E Departments in Greater Manchester after using Poppers.

These patients all showed similar symptoms: low oxygen saturation, high pulse rate, low blood pressure and blue colouring of the skin (cyanosis).  It is thought that these symptoms may have been as a result of swallowing or using extremely high doses of poppers. 

In some people this has been known to cause methaemoglobinaemia (an excess of the protein methaemoglobin in the blood), which can be fatal.

Poppers should *never* be swallowed:

Swallowing or drinking Poppers is very dangerous.  Quite apart from the increased risk of methaemoglobinaemia, swallowing poppers causes burning to mouth and throat and can prove fatal as they interfere with heart function.

If they are dangerous, why can I buy them?

As mentioned earlier, a number of different chemicals have been sold as Poppers in the past: amyl nitrite, butyl nitrite and isobutyl nitrite.  As these chemicals have since been banned or restricted, manufacturers have switched to selling Poppers containing isopropyl nitrite.

Isopropyl nitritecannot be sold legally as a ‘drug’, so like other ‘legal highs’ it is sold as something else, such as ‘leather cleaner’ or ‘room odoriser’.  Some Poppers labelling carries warnings stating they are products ‘not intended for human consumption’ or ‘harmful if inhaled'.  (Poppers are not illegal to purchase but are not legal to sell for human consumption).

What should I be mindful of if I’m going to use Poppers?

It’s important to remember these final points:

  • Do not swallow poppers under any circumstances.  They will burn the mouth and throat and can kill if swallowed.  If they are swallowed seek medical advice straight away.

  • Avoid using large doses or repeatedly using smaller doses of Poppers over a period of time.

  • Do not use Poppers along with Viagra (or similar drugs) or nitrate medicine used for treating heart conditions.

  • Poppers cause burns if they touch the skin.  If Poppers are spilt on the skin they should be washed off straight away with water.

  • Do not smoke when using Poppers, as the liquid is highly flammable. 

  • People with heart conditions or abnormal blood pressure may be at higher risk of complications.

  • Seek medical attention straight away if you experience any negative side effects from using poppers.