Poppers are liquid substances that people sometimes inhale to experience euphoria or enhance sex. They were previously sold in glass vials that made a popping noise when crushed, hence the name.
They belong to a class of chemicals called amyl nitrites, which were once used to manage heart-related symptoms, including angina, or chest pain. While this kind of medical use still happens, it’s not common.
Today, you usually find poppers in small plastic bottles. In the United States, poppers aren’t illegal, but selling them for nonprescribed consumption is illegal. As a result, many shops and online retailers market poppers as:
- leather cleaner
- nail polish remover
- air fresheners
- liquid incense
Read on for a closer look at the effects of poppers and whether they’re safe to use.
Poppers are vasodilators, which means they widen blood vessels. When inhaled, they cause a rapid dip in blood pressure that can result in an immediate but short-lived rush of euphoria and relaxation. These effects can last for a few minutes.
Poppers are often associated with sex for a couple of reasons. First, they tend to cause lowered inhibitions and sexual arousal. Second, poppers relax smooth muscles in the body — including those found in the anus and vagina — making anal and vaginal sex more pleasurable.
While poppers are often associated with gay men, people of all genders and sexualities have used them recreationally since the 1960s.
Keep in mind that some people use poppers simply for the head rush, not sexual activity.
In addition to euphoria and muscle relaxation, poppers can also cause some less pleasant side effects, including:
- headache, particularly after use
- pressure in the sinuses, eyes, or both
Despite their use for sexual enhancement, some people report trouble getting and maintaining an erection while using them.
Some people also report skin irritation around the nose after inhaling poppers.
Here’s a closer look at some of the risks that come with using poppers:
- Chemical burns. Poppers are highly flammable substances that should be kept away from your skin. If some does get on your skin, you might experience a chemical burn.
- Eye damage. There have been reports of people experiencing permanent eye damage after inhaling certain brands of poppers, particularly those containing isopropyl nitrite.
- Medication interactions. Poppers can interact with other drugs, particularly medications used for erectile dysfunction (ED), such as sildenafil (Viagra) or tadalafil (Cialis). Like poppers, these medications cause a drop in blood pressure. Used together, poppers and ED medications can lead to stroke, heart attack, or death. Same goes for blood pressure medications.
- Higher risk situations. Remember, poppers lower your inhibitions. This could cause you to do things you wouldn’t normally do, like have sex without using a barrier method to reduce your risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Poppers can also decrease sensations of pain, so if you’re having multiple rounds of sex and develop a tear or cut — which increases your risk of contracting an STI if you’re not using a condom or other barrier — you may not notice.
- Methemoglobinemia. If you swallow poppers or inhale a very large amount of them, there’s a risk of methemoglobinemia, a potentially life threatening condition that occurs when your blood cells contain too much methemoglobin. This makes it harder for your blood to carry oxygen throughout your body, which can have a serious impact on your organs.
If you plan on using poppers, these tips can help you minimize some of the risks associated with them:
- Start slow. Poppers hit fast and hard, so it’s best to start with a small amount.
- Stick to sniffing. Never swallow poppers or try to ingest them any other way.
- Skip the cigarette. Some people dip an unlit cigarette into a bottle of poppers and inhale through the filtered end. But poppers are highly flammable, so if you accidentally light that cigarette later, you could seriously burn yourself. It’s also wise to keep poppers away from lighters, candles, and anything else with a flame.
- One thing at a time. Avoid mixing poppers with ED medications or nonprescribed drugs, including alcohol.
- Keep water handy. You’ll want to avoid getting any liquid on your skin. If this does happen, immediately rinse the area. If it somehow ends in your eyes, flush them immediately with water.
- Plan ahead. If you’re planning to have sex after using poppers, discuss safe-sex practices first to reduce your risk of contracting an STI.
Call for immediate medical attention if someone swallows poppers or gets them in their eyes. You’ll also want to seek emergency help if someone displays any of the following after using poppers:
- difficulty breathing
- blue or gray skin
- loss of consciousness
Poppers are inhalants that produce a head rush and feeling of relaxation in the body. While they’re technically legal in the United States and have been used recreationally for years, they do carry some health risks.
If you plan to use poppers, make sure to have a plan in place to minimize these risks and keep yourself safe.