A drug that was initially synthesized to alleviate chest pain in the 1800s may have been a major player in the disco and rave culture that developed at the end of the 20th century.
And, it still exists today.
Amyl Nitrite, also known as Poppers, was first synthesized in 1844 and was later used by physicians to treat angina—chest pain caused by coronary artery disease. The drug is a vasodilator, which means that it improves blood flow and mitigates pain caused by constricted or blocked arteries.
By the late 1970s, amyl nitrite poppers emerged as a popular party drug, particularly in the LGBTQ community in the disco and rave scene. It was originally packaged in small, fragile glass capsules that were broken, or popped, and inhaled, earning the drug its nickname. Though it began as a “new drug craze” in the LGBTQ community, it quickly spread to a wide variety of users.
Typically, the drug’s effects are mild and, though it has been banned in other western countries (most recently in the UK), amyl nitrate poppers are still legal in the United States. But do they pose any threat or are they as harmless as their legality would suggest?
What is Amyl Nitrite?
Amyl nitrate is a class of drugs called alkyl nitrites. It’s considered a volatile liquid, because it is gaseous at room temperature. This makes them distinct from other drugs that are inhaled like marijuana, crack-cocaine, and meth, which require heat to produce gas. They are sometimes sold as room fresheners because the chemical compound has a clear, fruity fragrance. This also provides a cover for shops and clubs that sell them for use as party drugs — as they can be sold under a product label of “air freshener.”
Effects of Amyl Nitrite Poppers
The effects of a typical dose of amyl nitrite are generally mild and may elevate mood, especially in social atmospheres. In a study examining the top 20 recreational drugs, poppers were ranked 20th in terms of physical harm and 18th in the risk of forming a dependence on the substance. The study indicates that it is at the bottom of the list when it comes to concerning drugs on the streets. However, in some circumstances, they can still produce negative side effects.
While many users only report excessive laughter and physical euphoria after taking amyl nitrite poppers. However, some pervasive effects occur in many users including:
- Disinhibition, or a loss of restraint in decision making that can lead to reckless or bold choices.
- Headrush, headache
- Muscle relaxation
- Increased libido
The expansion of blood vessels throughout the body can cause a dramatic drop in blood pressure, which can be a risk for anyone predisposed to hypotension, in turn causing dizziness, fainting, or other complications.
Long-Term Effects of Amyl Nitrite
The level of harm from long-term use is moderate, but that does not mean mild allergic reactions to potentially life-threatening symptoms don’t exist. A blood disorder known as methemoglobinemia can lead to inadequate oxygen supply to the blood tissue, and this can lead to death.
Frequent use of the drug can also cause a rash to form around the user’s mouth, nose, eyes, or any part of their skin that comes in contact with the vapors. It can appear as skin irritation, and direct fluid with the skin can cause severe burns.
Someone who is pregnant or has high blood pressure should not come into contact with the substance. Use of the drug at this point can become problematic, and it can increase the risk of harmful effects. Also, fluid can also build up in the eyes, creating other issues for the user.
How Long Does Amyl Nitrite Stay in Your System?
While standard drug tests do not test for amyl nitrite, the drug can remain in your system and test positive in urine for up to three days but could remain even longer depending on your weight, water retention, age, and metabolism.
Combining Amyl Nitrite With Other Party Drugs
Using amyl nitrite with other drugs can be unpredictable, and in some cases, deadly. When the drug is combined with MDMA or amphetamines, it can place an increased strain on the heart. The body is put under excess stress and can cause a dangerous drop in blood pressure. If you use the drug in conjunction with other stimulants and experience dizziness or a drop in blood pressure, you must immediately call 911.
Health Conditions and Amyl Nitrite
The presence of certain medical conditions can exaggerate the effects or have grave consequences for those who use the drug. While someone should never use these drugs recreationally, if you choose to do so, you must consult with your doctor to ensure you have no underlying medical conditions. Such conditions to look out for include:
- Overactive thyroid
- High blood pressure
- Recent stroke, heart attack, or head injury
Abusing poppers with any of the above-listed conditions can lead to rapid heart rhythms and result in sudden sniffing death. Amyl nitrite can also cause what is known as methemoglobinemia, a life-threatening condition when the body produces too much methemoglobin, a substance in red blood cells.
Poppers and Sexual Disinhibition
The popularity of amyl nitrite poppers in the 70s and 80s came to be called a “craze” among same-sex male partners in the rave scene. The drug increases the libido and lowers inhibitions, which acts as a social lubricant in party settings. However, as a vasodilator, it also relaxes smooth muscles like the sphincter, which facilitates anal intercourse.
In the late 20th century, researchers believed that poppers may have been contributing to the perpetuation of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. Studies are able to find a correlation between an increase in risky sexual behavior and the use of popular club drugs. In the case of amyl nitrite poppers, the combination of increasing libido and lowering inhibitions can result in risky sexual behaviors like unprotected sex with strangers.
However, correlation does not equal causation. The direct relationship between club drugs and the spread of HIV continues to elude scientific studies. Plus, it could be that people engaging in the club lifestyle are already more likely to engage sexual behaviors that go with club culture.
Toxicity Risk of Amyl Nitrite Poppers
When the vapor is inhaled at a proper dose, amyl nitrite poses a very low toxicity risk. However, adverse effects are more dangerous at high doses. Poppers are considered very dangerous when ingested instead of inhaled. When swallowed, amyl nitrite can lead to unconsciousness, coma, and death. Aspiration of liquid amyl nitrite can also lead to pneumonia.
Poppers can also be dangerous when taken with other vasodilators like sildenafil (Viagra). This poses a larger risk in social situations where poppers are used in sexual encounters. Users may use both without knowing the potential for fainting, stroke, and heart attack.
A Warning About the Dangers of Inhaling Party Drugs
Popper users may encounter other substances that are similar to amyl nitrite with more harmful effects. Huffing or inhaling drugs can be unpredictable and dangerous. Many substances that are huffed or inhaled can be toxic at any dose.
One study points out the risk this poses to popper users who may mistake other inhalants for amyl nitrite. Not only is it possible that the user’s mistake one for the other, but it’s also possible that clinicians may have trouble telling the difference.
Party Drug Culture
Though amyl nitrite poppers saw an explosion of popularity in the US in the 70s and 80s, its prevalence has declined in favor of other options. Even despite popper’s legality, other substances like MDMA (also known as Molly or ecstasy) have taken over the rave scene. Since the 70s and 80s, other synthetic designer drugs have made their way into circulation at parties as well.
The wide variety of illicit substances that inundate the party culture make engaging with party drugs more of a gamble. Plus, dealers and black market manufacturers may also intentionally mislabel a substance to sell it as a more popular or more expensive option. Certain substances may be more addictive, or even deadlier than common legal party drugs like poppers.
If you or a loved one is struggling with abuse of party drugs, call Arete Recovery at 844-318-7500 or contact us online to find out more about your options. Recovery might just be a call away.
Leonard, J. (n.d.). What are poppers and are they safe? Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/324000.php
Amyl Nitrite (Inhalation Route) Side Effects. (2019, February 01). Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/drugs-supplements/amyl-nitrite-inhalation-route/side-effects/drg-20061803?p=1
Drug Facts – Amyl Nitrite. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://adf.org.au/drug-facts/amyl-nitrite/