Alkyl nitrites (‘poppers’)

Alkyl nitrites – ‘poppers’ – are liquid chemicals that have been widely used as recreational drugs since the 1970s. They are volatile substances which give off a gas that can be inhaled at room temperature.

Where are poppers sold?

Small bottles of poppers are sold as ‘room odorisers’ or ‘deodorisers’ from a range of sex shops, clubs, market stalls, online, etc.

What are the effects of inhaling poppers?

Inhaled nitrites are rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream and relax smooth muscle in the body. This allows blood vessels to dilate and blood pressure to drop, causing a headrush or ‘high’. They can enable or enhance sexual experience because they relax muscles in the anus and vagina.

What are the health risks of inhaling poppers?

For healthy people, the risks of using poppers are relatively low in comparison with other volatile substances and other drugs. However, because they lower blood pressure and increase heart rate they are more risky for people with heart conditions, abnormal blood pressure, anaemia or glaucoma and for those who are pregnant.

Other health risks include:

  • Headaches – the most common after-effect of using poppers is headache and nausea.
  • Eye damage – Isopropyl nitrite is being linked with a form of eye-damage known as ‘Poppers Maculopathy’. If you have any worries about your sight, please talk to your GP or optician.
  • Blood-borne viruses – poppers may increase the chance of tearing during sex which makes it easier for HIV or Hep C to enter the bloodstream.
  • Cancer – all nitrites are potential carcinogens and isobutyl nitrite is a known carcinogen. Long-term, regular use of poppers may be linked with an increased risk of certain kinds of cancer.
  • Poppers and other drugs – mixing drugs is always going to add risk. Also, when used with poppers, any drug that affects blood pressure (including erection-inducing drugs) can cause fainting, stroke or a potentially fatal heart attack.
  • Overdosing is uncommon but can cause organ failure due to ‘methemeoglobinemia’ – where the blood is unable to carry oxygen around the body leading to organ failure and even death.

If you have any worries about your health, please talk to your GP.

Harm reduction

  • Never swallow poppers – they’re toxic and can kill.
  • They’re highly flammable so keep them away from flames or lit cigarettes – you could get badly burned.
  • Poppers can cause chemical burns if they come into contact with eyes or skin. If this happens, rinse with plenty of water and get medical advice.
  • Don’t mix with other drugs as the effects can be unpredictable – and even fatal when combined with drugs that affect blood pressure (e.g. Viagra).
  • If using poppers for sex, always use a condom.

We also have a poppers leaflet available which you can view here – just get in touch if you’d like printed copies.

Published: June 2019
Review date: June 2020

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